Mind & Body
Reading Books Doesn't Just Make You Literate: It Reduces Stress, Promotes Good Health, and Makes You More Empathetic
3/7/2014 12:00:00 AM
Nordic Co-operation website (norden.org), http://www.norden.org/en/news-and-events/images/topics/culture/boecker-2/view?gallery=7378be162ade60962913a59d7b70f730

By Erin Kelly | Contributing Writer


Sure, reading books can improve your communication skills and teach you how to spell words and form sentences. But when you curl up with a good book, you're doing much more than that.

Studies show that reading books reduces stress, strengthens intuition, staves off Alzheimer’s disease, helps you sleep and makes you more empathetic. In other words: Books don’t just make you a better reader. They make you a better you.

"The ‘secondary’ benefits of reading are equally—maybe more—important,” says Delma McLeod-Porter, PhD, a McNeese State University Distinguished Professor and longtime literacy advocate. The Louisiana Endowment of the Humanities honored Porter with its 2008 Humanist of the Year Award for her outstanding contributions to the study and understanding of the humanities—a discipline that includes language, literature and art.


"Sharing other people’s experiences gives us insight into our own small lives. When we take ourselves out of the moment and enter the storyworld—even if it’s an historical account or other nonfiction—we momentarily become a part of that world. It engages and enables us to empathize with someone who is very unlike us; it forces us to consider courses of action that we may never have to consider in our day-to-day lives; it introduces us to cultures and people whom we may never meet face-to-face.”


www.trendhunter.comReading has such an impact on emotional intelligence that Forbes recently claimed that if its readers wanted to succeed in business, they needed to read more books. The article points to studies that show reading increases a person’s accurate awareness of themselves and others and their ability to create positive relationships based on managing their own reactions—in other words, it helps you understand real people and situations, thus making you a better leader.


Unfortunately, not everyone has reaped the benefits of a good book. A recent poll from the Huffington Post found that 28 percent of adults hadn’t read at all in the past year. Many adults stop reading once they’ve escaped the required reading lists of high school or college. A shame, according to Louisiana State Librarian Rebecca Hamilton.


"It is very important … to create a culture of literacy,” Hamilton said. "We know that it’s important that our children begin reading early, which is whywe provide training on early literacy initiatives for our public library staff. We also know that it’s important for children to continue to read and learn through the summer months, which is why we sponsor and provide the Louisiana Summer Reading Program and the Young Readers and Teen Reader’s Choice Award programs. (And) we are all too aware of our adult population that are not readers, or who are illiterate, which is why we sponsor and provide our Adult Reading Program.”


Ideally, would-be readers would be hit with books at every level, not just when they’re given a required reading list.


"The key to becoming a reader is reading—if reading this week’s Sunday school lesson is important, that’s a good place to start; if reading the news is pertinent, get a subscription to the local newspaper. What a person reads is not as important as the ‘act’ of reading,” Porter said.


And that "act of reading” could have health benefits, as well as psychological ones.


Research conducted in 2009 at Mindlab International at the University of Sussex showed that reading was the most effective way to overcome stress. Participants experienced relaxed muscle tension and decreased heart rate within six minutes of turning pages. Reading was found to alleviate stress better than music, walking, or tea. According to the study researcher, it didn’t really matter which book it was—just as long as it was being read.


This study came a few years after researchers found another promising association—this time, between books and Alzheimer’s risk. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, showed that adults who engaged in hobbies that involved the brain—such as reading books or solving puzzles—were less likely to develop Alzheimer’s.


It could also help you get a good night’s rest, sleep experts say—as long as you don’t do the reading on your laptop or another backlit device. For a restful snooze, pages are best.


That’s not to say there’s not a time and place for those backlit devices, Porter notes.


"I don’t believe technology has had a negative effect on reading; in fact, electronic readers make it much easier. I read from my smart phone when I have a spare minute,” she says.


The key to becoming a reader and basking in all its benefits is simple: Just read. Read anything. Porter suggests Reader’s Digest as a good start, because you get a little bit of everything.


And once you start reading, don’t stop. You won’t just become a better you—you’ll be part of a better community.


"An educated and enlightened community where all members are engaged and participatory will thrive and grow and be better,” Hamilton says.


Porter agrees: "Reading helps us become more critical thinkers; it fosters a thirst for experience of people and place that we can realistically quench in a reasonably short time; it helps us to become more – or in some cases, less – tolerant of people who are different from us. Reading enables us to live in worlds that are larger than our own.

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