Well Well Well

The Case for Reading as a Self-Care Activity

As it turns out, doing things that reinforce our sense of self matters to our sense of well-being.

By Haley Shapley February 8, 2024

Every year at the beginning of January, I gather with my friend Ashley and her family among piles of craft paper, bags of colored pencils, and reams of dreams. We trace our hands onto the fancy paper, and on each finger, write one of our New Year’s resolutions. (Yes, I still support New Year’s resolutions; don’t @ me.)

With four of my resolutions solidified in marker on my hand—so you know I was serious—I struggled for a fifth. “What about a self-care goal?” someone helpfully suggested. I scrunched my nose and narrowed my eyes, looking at her with a mixture of blankness and derision.

I don’t really vibe with the self-care concept, at least not the way it’s been conceptualized in recent years. Bubble baths bore me, lighting candles is a fire risk, and the one time I tried to keep a gratitude journal, it backfired and I ended up feeling less grateful than when I began.

Putting “regular face masks” on my resolution list the way Ashley did just didn’t suit me. But then I thought about it and realized I already had a self-care goal written down: to read 52 books this year.

I’ve read, on average, a minimum of one book a week since 2020, and it’s absolutely improved my life. (For the record, yes, audiobooks count.) Previously, in that post-college, pre-career-on-solid-footing era, I eked out a book only every once in a while. One year, I set a goal of 12 and didn’t hit it. I could feel that something was off.

There’s research to back up the benefits of reading for well-being. A study in the journal Neurology found that reading at any time of your life—from childhood to old age—slows down memory decline in older age. It also helps with everything from personal growth to stress management to building vocabulary. When a book is swapped for a screen at bedtime, sleep improves. If you read literary fiction, you’ll learn to put yourself in other people’s shoes and thus increase your IRL empathy. Folks in a book club find social perks, and if you just so happen to be a writer, reading will make you better at your job. I also believe it makes you a more interesting person, although I don’t have hard data to back that up.

Picking up a book can help you almost instantly. Research out of the University of Sussex found that people only needed to read, silently, for six minutes to slow down their heart rate, ease muscle tension, and reduce stress levels by 68 percent. “Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation,” cognitive neuroscientist David Lewis, who conducted the study, told the Telegraph. “This is more than merely a distraction but an active engaging of the imagination as the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.”

I can attest to that. If you tell me to relax, I’ll probably tell you to go away. But if you tell me to read, I’ll probably end up escaping into a whole ’nother world, or maybe just learning some fun facts to spit out the next time I’m at a party. Either way, both of these things make me happy, and relaxation will ensue. That’s not something I can get, at least not as easily, from activities like meditation or massages.

For me, perhaps the main benefit of a robust literary life is amorphous—I simply feel like myself when I’m reading. Ever since I was little, I’ve loved to turn pages, to get lost in a story, to learn new things. As it turns out, doing things that reinforce our sense of self matters to our sense of well-being.

I think some self-care gurus would tell me to read for pleasure, not to put a number on it, and definitely not to create stress around something I do for fun. It’s true that this past December was a little harried as I realized I’d need to read seven books to hit my goal, a bit of a stretch amid the holiday hubbub. I cut it close, wrapping up late in the evening on December 30. But goals don’t have to be oppressive, and checking off boxes doesn’t negate the journey. If I hadn’t pushed myself to finish my 2023 goal, I wouldn’t have learned about America’s first celebrity, Charlotte Cushman. I wouldn’t have finished up the charming Tom Lake, which I saw Ann Patchett speak about this past fall in a Seattle Arts & Lectures (SAL) event. And I wouldn’t have continued to deepen my knowledge on the wide research gap between male and female athletes.

Luckily, Seattle is quite supportive of my bookworm habit. Living in a UNESCO City of Literature has its merits. A small sampling includes:

  • We have approximately 1 million Little Free Libraries. OK, it’s actually 1,100 in King County, but that’s a lot, no?
  • We have no shortage of indie bookshops. (Of course, there’s always room for more.) Some of them have resident cats, some of them exclusively carry poetry, and some of them have an owner who will sing to you. You never know what you’ll find, except for books. That’s a constant.
  • We have what truly is one of the coolest libraries around in the Seattle Central Library. I missed its stacks and signature glass-and-steel design when it was closed. Plus, Summer Book Bingo, a collab between the Seattle Public Library and SAL, is my official summer kickoff.
  • We have silent reading parties all over town. There’s the OG version at Hotel Sorrento, but more are popping up in neighborhoods like West Seattle, Ballard, and U District.

I’m looking forward to doing self-care my way in the new year. There will probably be zero baths—in fact, I’m currently trying to figure out how to get rid of my bathtub—but I’ve already delved into the world of cat meows, gotten caught up in the drama of a fictional Atlantic City family in 1934, explored the Japanese internment camps of World War II through the eyes of a child, and learned all about 14 female serial killers, so I’d say my 2024 well-being journey is off to a rollicking, page-turner kind of start.

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