Can Reading Fiction Help You Heal Faster?

Avid readers of fiction probably already know that there are many benefits to a good book. For one, it’s extremely enjoyable! It also offers many people an escape from the stress of daily life, and can help to sharpen the mind.

Along with these are many other benefits, one noteworthy thing that has been researched in Sweden is the potential for reading fiction to help with the healing process from an illness or injury. In a word: bibliotherapy.

Reading fiction may encourage healing

For this research, performed at the University of Gothenburg, Dr. Lena Mårtensson, a registered occupational therapist, and Dr. Cecilia Pettersson, a scholar of literature, focused on the experiences of eight women who had been on sick leave for a period of four to 36 months. The women were all readers, and were interviewed about their fiction reading experiences while they were on sick leave.

Many of the women reported that when they first began sick leave, they did not read as much, or have the energy to read at all. However, as their sick leave progressed and they began reading fiction again, they reported positive benefits to multiple aspects of their recoveries.

According to Dr. Mårtensson:

“Fiction reading is a meaningful activity that the sick-listed women initiated on their own, and it strengthened their ability to take part in everyday activities… Reading can encourage sick-listed individuals to become more actively involved in their rehabilitation.”

Specifically, these health benefits included a more positive self-image, a “private space for recovery,” and benefits to their ability to regain their everyday life structure. These are all crucially important when transitioning out of the swing of things for weeks or months on end, which can be a highly depressing and frustrating situation for many.

As far as what the women in the study read, it varied greatly. The researchers reported that some chose stories that mirrored their own situations, while others chose other types of fiction for aesthetic purposes, or as an escape from their sickness.

On this variety of fiction, Pettersson explained:

“The women read in all of these different ways but at different times during their sick leave, feeling that it greatly contributed to their rehabilitation. This points to the breadth of therapeutic reading and the danger in trying to regulate this type of reading too much.”

From this study, it seems that any type of fiction that resonates with a reader can be beneficial to the healing process.

Reading fiction may help us empathize with others who are healing

Along with helping people who are going through an illness, injury, or other rehabilitation process to heal, reading fiction may also provide benefits to those caring for a sick or injured person. This is because reading fiction may help strengthen a sense of empathy in us a vital sense for being able to tend to another’s needs effectively.

In 2014, Dr. Raymond Mar, a psychologist from Canada’s York University, presented this notion at the 122nd Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association. Mar’s focus was that narrative fiction could help us to better understand others, because the way in which we interpret stories has parallels to the way we interpret the world around us.

Further clarifying this, Mar explained:

“When people read stories we invoke personal experiences. We’re relying not just on words on a page, but also our own past experiences… Even though fiction is fabricated, it can communicate truths about human psychology and relationships.”

He also added:

“Experiences that we have in our life shape our understanding of the world…and imagined experiences through narrative fiction stories are also likely to shape or change us. But with a caveat — it’s not a magic bullet — it’s an opportunity for change and growth.”

Reap the benefits

These are indeed some important benefits. Whether you are ill, caring for someone ill, or neither of the above, it can do you a lot of good to delve into fiction that you enjoy. If you’ve never really been a reader, it’s never too late to start! The following are a few tips to find fiction that you enjoy:

  • Visit your local public library and browse titles that jump out at you. Read the synopsis on the inside cover you may find something that catches your attention.
  • Ask friends and family for book recommendations. People that know you well can probably recommend books that you would enjoy. Give them a chance!
  • If you don’t want to take on a thick novel, try a book of short stories. Many of these can be read in one sitting, so that you do not have to space the story out over days and weeks. If you check out a few short story collections of different genres, you may find a type that you enjoy. This may encourage you to search for other works in that genre. Don’t let yourself get too zoomed in, though great fiction exists in all genres!

Is there a particular book, author or short story that has gotten you through a tough time? Please share your experiences!

— Tanya Rakhmilevich

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