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“Mental health” isn’t just a trendy concept that’s floating around. It refers to a person’s overall psychological and emotional wellbeing. Your mental health affects your day-to-day life and it requires maintenance, just like physical wellness. It affects how your think, feel, and act.

So how can you improve your mental health?

Humans are naturally drawn to stories. It’s no surprise, then, that reading a book can improve one’s psychological and emotional wellbeing. There are multiple studies that show scientific evidence that reading regularly, even just 20 pages a day, can be beneficial. Reading literary fiction has proven even more advantageous than reading non-fiction in many cases.

Mirror Neurons

Scientists discovered mirror-neurons in the mid-1990s. These are the neurons that fire in our brains whenever we perform an action ourselves, or see it performed by someone else. They play a big role in our understanding of empathy, which is our ability to understand or share the feelings of another.

Photo: Flickr/Johan Lange

Empathy is crucial to the success of our interpersonal relationships. Seems like a good thing to regularly cultivate, right? Those who read fiction tend to score higher on empathy tests. That’s because fiction augments reality and can help you to develop better social skills and understanding. It is, as Keith Oatley says, “consciousness being passed from mind to mind.” So, break out that library card and borrow a novel or two and keep those mirror neurons firing.

Photo: Creative Commons/Nahh

Stress Reduction

When compared with other activities meant to help one unwind and relax, reading comes out on top. The University of Sussex did a study that showed reading for pleasure can reduce stress levels by more than 60%. The participants heart rates and stress levels were monitored while engaging in various forms of relaxation: drinking tea, listening to music, taking a walk… still, reading showed to be the strongest method for helping both the body and the brain to relax.

Getting lost in a book for a few hours can reduce stress and even decrease depression—which is connected to those increased empathy levels. Think of your daily dose of reading a chapter or two after a long day at work as a regular “bibliotherapy” session.

Mind Workout

The mental activity of reading is good for you! It makes you more flexible, able to adjust and adapt to evolving situations. It prevents mental decline and keeps your brain in shape. Not only can reading help stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s, it actually improves memory and focus.

Photo: Creative Commons/Jeff Youngstrom

Those who do not engage in mentally active pursuits like reading can experience a higher percentage and rate of mental decline. But those who do read books (over magazines or other forms of media) live longer. Reading just 4 hours a week can make you more than 20% more likely to outlive than those who don’t read at all.

So yeah, reading is pretty great for you. Whether it’s fantasy, historical fiction, poetry, or biographies, reading is good for the brain. Just make sure you grab a print book now and then instead of always reaching for an e-reader. Less screen time is better for the brain and the eyes.
Happy reading!