Reading for wellbeing (hauora)

Girl reading a book on the beach

Photo by Jyotirmoy Gupta. Unsplash. License to use.

The benefits of reading for pleasure extend beyond increased educational outcomes to improved wellbeing, health, and connections with others.

What is wellbeing?

There's no set definition of wellbeing, but hauora — a Māori concept of health — provides a holistic framework to use. This framework encompasses 4 dimensions of health:

  • taha tinana — physical wellbeing
  • taha hinengaro — mental and emotional wellbeing
  • taha whānau — social wellbeing
  • taha wairua — spiritual wellbeing.

Well-being, hauora — on the Ministry of Education's TKI website.

Why focus on wellbeing?

Since 2006, Ministry of Health figures have shown a steady rise in the number of young people (aged 15 to 24 years) experiencing mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and psychological distress. The increase in mood and anxiety disorders has been particularly significant, up around 7%, among Māori and Europeans.

Ministry of Health figures

And younger children are not immune. The Children’s Commissioner’s report, 'Child and Youth Voices on Bullying in Aotearoa' stated that a large proportion of children in New Zealand experience bullying in a proportion 'greater than almost all other OECD countries'.

Child and Youth Voices on Bullying in Aotearoa — Office of the Children’s Commissioner, 2017.

Reading improves wellbeing (hauora)

Reading for pleasure has been shown to impact all 4 dimensions of health. It slows cognitive decline and enhances:

  • life satisfaction
  • relationships
  • coping skills
  • attitudes to, and engagement with, learning.

Five ways reading can improve health and well-being

It allows imaginations to flourish and enhances empathy. It also reduces stress and brings a greater understanding of self and others. In short, it has the power to transform lives.

To Read or Not to Read: A Question of National Consequence, the United States-based National Endowment for the Arts' comprehensive 2007 report concluded:

All of the data suggest how powerfully reading transforms the lives of individuals — whatever their social circumstances. Regular reading not only boosts the likelihood of an individual’s academic and economic success — facts that are not especially surprising — but it also seems to awaken a person’s social and civic sense. Reading correlates with almost every measurement of positive personal and social behavior surveyed.

Reading for pleasure — a door to success

  • Reading reduces stress and empowers

    Parents and teachers who read aloud to children and young people know how enjoyable and calming it is for all involved. Reading a book with a child or young person purely for pleasure before sleep has the added advantage of strengthening the parent/child bond.

    'The Untold Power of the Book', a 2016 Quick Reads and University of Liverpool study, found 41% of adults thought reading a book took their minds off their worries better than going out with friends. Reading inspired many to make positive changes in their life such as taking better care of their health or taking up a new hobby. The study also found that books lead to a more tolerant and empathetic society.

    New study reveals that reading for pleasure empowers us to make positive life changes has more about the study and a link to the full report.

    Another 2016 study, this time from Yale in the US, found adults over 50 years who read books for 30 minutes a day lived on average 2 years longer than those who didn’t read books.

    A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity — Yale University School of Public Health, 2016.

    Teachers who know first-hand the pleasure of reading literature relax. They love reading, they trust that kids will find the same satisfaction as they do, and they ask questions that go beyond what is in the text — but they always come back to it.
    — Nancie Atwel, 'Side by Side: Essays on Teaching to Learn' (1991)

    Reading and relaxation in action

    A Cambridge High School initiative, Picture Book Friday, draws on the power of a story to relax, while also building a community of readers.

    Each week, a year 13 student or teacher gives a brief talk about a picture book they know or remember. This allows space and time for both students and teachers to:

    • unwind and share childhood memories — a time far from any stresses they may be experiencing as a teenager, and
    • experience the richness of images and language in picture books.
  • Reading reduces stress and empowers

    Parents and teachers who read aloud to children and young people know how enjoyable and calming it is for all involved. Reading a book with a child or young person purely for pleasure before sleep has the added advantage of strengthening the parent/child bond.

    'The Untold Power of the Book', a 2016 Quick Reads and University of Liverpool study, found 41% of adults thought reading a book took their minds off their worries better than going out with friends. Reading inspired many to make positive changes in their life such as taking better care of their health or taking up a new hobby. The study also found that books lead to a more tolerant and empathetic society.

    New study reveals that reading for pleasure empowers us to make positive life changes has more about the study and a link to the full report.

    Another 2016 study, this time from Yale in the US, found adults over 50 years who read books for 30 minutes a day lived on average 2 years longer than those who didn’t read books.

    A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity — Yale University School of Public Health, 2016.

    Teachers who know first-hand the pleasure of reading literature relax. They love reading, they trust that kids will find the same satisfaction as they do, and they ask questions that go beyond what is in the text — but they always come back to it.
    — Nancie Atwel, 'Side by Side: Essays on Teaching to Learn' (1991)

    Reading and relaxation in action

    A Cambridge High School initiative, Picture Book Friday, draws on the power of a story to relax, while also building a community of readers.

    Each week, a year 13 student or teacher gives a brief talk about a picture book they know or remember. This allows space and time for both students and teachers to:

    • unwind and share childhood memories — a time far from any stresses they may be experiencing as a teenager, and
    • experience the richness of images and language in picture books.
  • Increases self-esteem and life satisfaction

    In their 2018 review of research about the benefits of reading, the UK think tank, Demos, found that readers were 18% more likely to have higher self-esteem and greater life satisfaction than non-readers. This included those who read for as little as 30 minutes a week.

    A Society of Readers — Demos, commissioned by The Reading Agency, 2018.

    A 2015 study by Quick Reads and the University of Liverpool showed that reading reduces depression and dementia. 1 in 4 readers surveyed in the 'Reading between the lines' study said a book helped them realise that other people had gone through the same thing as them, which improved how they felt about their situation. The same study found that non-readers are 28% more likely to feel depressed than readers.

    Reading between the lines: The benefits of reading for pleasure — Quick Reads, University of Liverpool, 2015.

    You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.
    — James Baldwin

  • Increases self-esteem and life satisfaction

    In their 2018 review of research about the benefits of reading, the UK think tank, Demos, found that readers were 18% more likely to have higher self-esteem and greater life satisfaction than non-readers. This included those who read for as little as 30 minutes a week.

    A Society of Readers — Demos, commissioned by The Reading Agency, 2018.

    A 2015 study by Quick Reads and the University of Liverpool showed that reading reduces depression and dementia. 1 in 4 readers surveyed in the 'Reading between the lines' study said a book helped them realise that other people had gone through the same thing as them, which improved how they felt about their situation. The same study found that non-readers are 28% more likely to feel depressed than readers.

    Reading between the lines: The benefits of reading for pleasure — Quick Reads, University of Liverpool, 2015.

    You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.
    — James Baldwin

  • Builds empathy and connections

    Empathy lies at the foundation of compassion, social skills, and relationships. It's particularly important for children and young people as they develop their sense of self and others.

    A 2014 University of Toronto study published in the journal 'Trends in Cognitive Sciences', found that reading fiction develops empathy and imagination.

    Fiction: Simulation of Social Worlds — University of Toronto.

    A story has the ability to ‘transport’ us into the emotional states of others whose worlds and lives are often socially different from our own. Stansfield and Bunce found reading these type of stories can have a potentially positive impact on 'real-world helping behaviours'.

    The relationship between empathy and reading fiction: Separate roles for cognitive and affective components — J Stansfield and L Bunce (2014), 'Journal of European Psychology Students'.

    The transition into adolescence is a particularly vulnerable time. Young people in this life phase experience a 'perfect storm' of hormones, emotions, and physical changes. They often have new schools and peers, and increasing academic pressure. Reading fiction provides a reprieve from the day-to-day stresses. It also provides an empathetic bridge to the lives of others. Canadian researchers who looked into the importance of reading for pleasure in the lives of 12- to 15-year-olds found:

    ...teens gain significant insights into mature relationships, personal values, cultural identity, physical safety and security, aesthetic preferences, and understanding of the physical world, all of which aid teen readers in the transition from childhood to adulthood.
    — Vivian Howard, The importance of pleasure reading in the lives of young teens: Self-identification, self-construction and self-awareness

    Builds social connections

    Although the act of reading — being 'immersed in a book' — is a solitary act, reading is also an important connector. Chatting about books and reading can happen casually at school or home, in book groups, or at events. The result is more social interaction.

    Reading also improves oral language development and can be an ongoing source of pleasure throughout life. These outcomes tie in with the New Zealand Curriculum's focus on developing 'confident, connected, actively involved, and lifelong learners'.

  • Builds empathy and connections

    Empathy lies at the foundation of compassion, social skills, and relationships. It's particularly important for children and young people as they develop their sense of self and others.

    A 2014 University of Toronto study published in the journal 'Trends in Cognitive Sciences', found that reading fiction develops empathy and imagination.

    Fiction: Simulation of Social Worlds — University of Toronto.

    A story has the ability to ‘transport’ us into the emotional states of others whose worlds and lives are often socially different from our own. Stansfield and Bunce found reading these type of stories can have a potentially positive impact on 'real-world helping behaviours'.

    The relationship between empathy and reading fiction: Separate roles for cognitive and affective components — J Stansfield and L Bunce (2014), 'Journal of European Psychology Students'.

    The transition into adolescence is a particularly vulnerable time. Young people in this life phase experience a 'perfect storm' of hormones, emotions, and physical changes. They often have new schools and peers, and increasing academic pressure. Reading fiction provides a reprieve from the day-to-day stresses. It also provides an empathetic bridge to the lives of others. Canadian researchers who looked into the importance of reading for pleasure in the lives of 12- to 15-year-olds found:

    ...teens gain significant insights into mature relationships, personal values, cultural identity, physical safety and security, aesthetic preferences, and understanding of the physical world, all of which aid teen readers in the transition from childhood to adulthood.
    — Vivian Howard, The importance of pleasure reading in the lives of young teens: Self-identification, self-construction and self-awareness

    Builds social connections

    Although the act of reading — being 'immersed in a book' — is a solitary act, reading is also an important connector. Chatting about books and reading can happen casually at school or home, in book groups, or at events. The result is more social interaction.

    Reading also improves oral language development and can be an ongoing source of pleasure throughout life. These outcomes tie in with the New Zealand Curriculum's focus on developing 'confident, connected, actively involved, and lifelong learners'.

  • Encourages inclusion

    p>The 2019 report 'What Makes a Good Life?' surveyed 6,000 New Zealand children and young people. Respondents named mental and emotional wellbeing as one of 4 top areas needing the most urgent government attention.

    They also said: 'Accept us for who we are and who we want to be'.

    Teach acceptance more ... Just so that people can learn to accept other cultures, because I feel like what’s happened in the past is that people have been taught it’s okay to just think within your one culture, and that’s it for your whole life. But then the thing is the world is such a vast place.
    — Young person from Wellington, 'What Makes a Good Life' report

    What Makes a Good Life? (2019) — Office of the Children’s Commissioner and Oranga Tamariki — Ministry for Children.

    Having a diverse range of books provides 'mirrors and windows' that reflect students' experiences and open up those of others. Ensuring access to such a range is crucial to building identity.

    In its 'English: Reading 2014 Overview' report, the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement asked students about reading opportunities and experiences they had at school. Students reported fewer opportunities to read, hear about, and access books as they progressed through school. For example, when asked how often they visited the school library, 39% of girls and 29% of boys said they went ‘very often’ in year 4. In year 8, this had dropped to 21% of girls and 17% of boys.

    This is particularly concerning in light of the study’s finding that the statement ‘I go to the school library’ had the greatest correlation between responses to an 'opportunity-to-learn item and achievement on the KARE scale'. The item to which the greatest numbers of girls and boys responded ‘never’ was ‘The things we read in class are about people like me and my family/whānau’.

    English: Reading 2014 Overview

  • Encourages inclusion

    p>The 2019 report 'What Makes a Good Life?' surveyed 6,000 New Zealand children and young people. Respondents named mental and emotional wellbeing as one of 4 top areas needing the most urgent government attention.

    They also said: 'Accept us for who we are and who we want to be'.

    Teach acceptance more ... Just so that people can learn to accept other cultures, because I feel like what’s happened in the past is that people have been taught it’s okay to just think within your one culture, and that’s it for your whole life. But then the thing is the world is such a vast place.
    — Young person from Wellington, 'What Makes a Good Life' report

    What Makes a Good Life? (2019) — Office of the Children’s Commissioner and Oranga Tamariki — Ministry for Children.

    Having a diverse range of books provides 'mirrors and windows' that reflect students' experiences and open up those of others. Ensuring access to such a range is crucial to building identity.

    In its 'English: Reading 2014 Overview' report, the National Monitoring Study of Student Achievement asked students about reading opportunities and experiences they had at school. Students reported fewer opportunities to read, hear about, and access books as they progressed through school. For example, when asked how often they visited the school library, 39% of girls and 29% of boys said they went ‘very often’ in year 4. In year 8, this had dropped to 21% of girls and 17% of boys.

    This is particularly concerning in light of the study’s finding that the statement ‘I go to the school library’ had the greatest correlation between responses to an 'opportunity-to-learn item and achievement on the KARE scale'. The item to which the greatest numbers of girls and boys responded ‘never’ was ‘The things we read in class are about people like me and my family/whānau’.

    English: Reading 2014 Overview

  • Bibliotherapy

    'Bibliotherapy' is reading specific books to learn more about and improve medical and non-medical challenges or to feel 'you aren’t alone in the river of life'. It has been around for thousands of years. The ancient library in the tomb of Ramses II at Thebes in Egypt had the phrase ‘place of care for the soul’ above its entrance.

    Increasingly, public libraries are collaborating with health services to provide bibliotherapy services. School library staff can work with the school counsellor to share and discuss useful titles that may help students.

    Bibliotherapy can enhance personal insight, provide information, suggest alternatives, diminish isolation, clarify emerging values, stimulate discussion and extend the counselling process outside of traditional settings.
    — IFLA article outlining the Central Europe 2020 Bibliotherapy project

    On bibliotherapy — an article Dr Keren Dali, researcher and educator in the field of Library and Information Science.

    Readaxation

    Nicola Morgan, a UK author and expert on teenage brains and mental health, coined the term 'readaxation'. George Watson’s College library took this idea and developed a 'Readaxation Resort', which is something you might like to try in your own school.

    A school creates a Readaxation Resort

    Nicola Morgan’s Readaxation Diary

  • Bibliotherapy

    'Bibliotherapy' is reading specific books to learn more about and improve medical and non-medical challenges or to feel 'you aren’t alone in the river of life'. It has been around for thousands of years. The ancient library in the tomb of Ramses II at Thebes in Egypt had the phrase ‘place of care for the soul’ above its entrance.

    Increasingly, public libraries are collaborating with health services to provide bibliotherapy services. School library staff can work with the school counsellor to share and discuss useful titles that may help students.

    Bibliotherapy can enhance personal insight, provide information, suggest alternatives, diminish isolation, clarify emerging values, stimulate discussion and extend the counselling process outside of traditional settings.
    — IFLA article outlining the Central Europe 2020 Bibliotherapy project

    On bibliotherapy — an article Dr Keren Dali, researcher and educator in the field of Library and Information Science.

    Readaxation

    Nicola Morgan, a UK author and expert on teenage brains and mental health, coined the term 'readaxation'. George Watson’s College library took this idea and developed a 'Readaxation Resort', which is something you might like to try in your own school.

    A school creates a Readaxation Resort

    Nicola Morgan’s Readaxation Diary

  • Find out more

    Children's literacy levels fall as social media hits reading — article in 'The Telegraph'.

    He Ara Oranga: Report of the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction

    Simultaneously uncovering the patterns of brain regions involved in different story reading subprocesses — research by the Brain Image Analysis Research Group, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

    Te Pakiaka Tangata Strengthening Student Wellbeing for Success (2017) — Ministry of Education guidelines for the provision of pastoral care, guidance, and counselling in secondary schools.

    University of Sussex study — article by Dr Mercola.

    Mar R, Oatley K, Peterson J (2009), Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy: Ruling out individual differences and examining outcomes, 'Communications', volume 34, issue 4, pages 407 to 428 (viewed on 29 April 2019).

    Twenge J, Martin G, Campbell W (2018), Decreases in psychological well-being among American adolescents after 2012 and links to screen time during the rise of smartphone technology. 'Emotion', volume 18, issue 6, pages 765 to 780 (viewed on 17 May 2019).

  • Find out more

    Children's literacy levels fall as social media hits reading — article in 'The Telegraph'.

    He Ara Oranga: Report of the Government Inquiry into Mental Health and Addiction

    Simultaneously uncovering the patterns of brain regions involved in different story reading subprocesses — research by the Brain Image Analysis Research Group, Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

    Te Pakiaka Tangata Strengthening Student Wellbeing for Success (2017) — Ministry of Education guidelines for the provision of pastoral care, guidance, and counselling in secondary schools.

    University of Sussex study — article by Dr Mercola.

    Mar R, Oatley K, Peterson J (2009), Exploring the link between reading fiction and empathy: Ruling out individual differences and examining outcomes, 'Communications', volume 34, issue 4, pages 407 to 428 (viewed on 29 April 2019).

    Twenge J, Martin G, Campbell W (2018), Decreases in psychological well-being among American adolescents after 2012 and links to screen time during the rise of smartphone technology. 'Emotion', volume 18, issue 6, pages 765 to 780 (viewed on 17 May 2019).