Ancient wisdom has suggested that books can be therapeutic from Plato’s time through the enlightenment to modern day Bibliotherapy courses. Literary fiction has been a source of fascination for me since the eighties when my teacher announced that the study of literature was about ‘The Art of Living’. I believe she had a point and I later spent a stint in my career as a teacher of English Literature trying to persuade teenagers who would ask ‘but is it in the exam Miss’ of the same. Still on a mission, I am now investigating the value of literature in positive psychology. I briefly outline just a few of the connections in this blog.
The benefits of Mindfulness are well-documented. Mindfulness can take the form of meditation but it can also involve pursuing activities mindfully; being in the moment, paying close attention and observing. Reading can most certainly be pursued in this way. In a lovely article by the writer Tim Parks, ‘Mindful Reading’ he considers the pleasures of reading. In reading carefully, mindfully, you can feel and observe your own reactions to the world that a writer is creating for you, to the characters that you are being presented with, to the problems and dilemmas and worlds that unfold in the pages of a novel.
“…the excitement of reading is the precarious one of being alive, and reacting from moment to moment, in the most liquid and intimate sphere of the mind, to someone else’s elusive construction of the precarious business of being alive now.” – Tim Parks
In Dr Mark Williams’ ‘Mindfulness’ one of the pieces of advice is to spend more time on pleasurable activities in to improve your well-being including reading novels.
‘One shed’s one’s sickness in books – repeats and presents again one’s emotions to be a master of them’ wrote D.H. Lawrence. In her book Emotional Agility, Dr Susan David addresses the importance of not trying to ‘impose happy thoughts’ but rather to ‘show up’, face into your emotions and find out what we are really all about. Through bibliotherapy – reading novels and poetry – it may be possible to improve your understanding of your own emotional life. We can observe our reaction to the writing, to the world created in our minds in response to the words on the page, create mental space and consider our reactions – our core values, our principles, our goals.
An understanding of how attitudes to emotions have varied over time – attitudes to sensibility, romanticism, changing views of love. Through reading a range of literature, you can start to understand the role that emotions have played in lives throughout history, allowing us to consider the role of emotions now in modern life and how this has changed.
Getting lost in a good book is an opportunity to experience what Mihaly Csikszentmihalvi describes as ‘Flow’ with all its’ ensuing benefits such as being completely engaged, being challenged, achieving, not noticing time, and all the mental health benefits that ensue from spending time in that state.
At very least, reading is one of the activities that Barbara Fredrickson would describe a healthy distraction to negative feelings. The opportunity to dip into other lives, worlds, problems and mysteries and be involved in them in safety and comfort provides – at very least – escapism but more than that, it provides the opportunity to do the mental gymnastics involved in visiting other realities without real risk or pressure or stress.
Research from Sussex University has recently shown that just 6 minutes of reading reduces stress – so can help deal with negative emotions.
The research as to the benefit of books is in its infancy. A relatively new charity, ReLit, are endeavouring to collate and consider what is out there. In very brief terms; reading has been found to improve empathy. Imagining different characters and situations can improve understanding in real life. It can improve imagination. It has been linked with longevity, reduction of mild depressive symptoms, well-being and improved self-knowledge.
Imagination and Empathy
Closely linked to empathy is imagination. One cannot underestimate the importance of imagination – everything around us that is man-made, our houses, our furniture, our cars etc only exist because someone imagined what could be. It is the same with our goals, our lifestyle, our priorities, by having the ability to imagine, we can change our own reality.
The ability to imagine how others are feeling helps to create the sense of empathy which has been found to improve through reading fiction. This links closely with the ‘Theory of Mind’ which psychologists use to explain how we map the intentions of others.
Psychologist Raymond Marr found a substantial overlap in the brain networks used to make sense of stories and the networks used to process interactions with others. While Professor Keith Oatley of University of Toronto considers that reading runs on the minds of readers in the way that “computer simulations run on computers”. In other words, reading is simulating reality and providing a valuable, life-enhancing experience.
Reading a novel and becoming involved with the novel provides a great opportunity to identify and consider character strengths of others and yourself. In much the same way as Ryan Niemic’s work on using films to identify character strengths and consider positive psychology, a novel can be used for this and with the length of time that it takes, provides time for extended consideration.
There is so much more to explore and investigate as to how fiction could be used in positive psychology – such as the power of narrative and your own journey – but it is time to leave this chapter here and tell that story another time.
About the author: Nicola Morgan is a Positive Psychology Coach, Tutor, Mentor and MAPP student at Bucks New University learntothrive.co.uk