In hard times, fiction offers peace of mind

Reading fiction used to reassure me when I was feeling discouraged and now, its mental health benefits are getting me through quarantine.


by Rachel Robinson, Opinion Editor

Fiction used to be a second home to me. When I was in middle school, amidst all of the social and emotional ups and downs of being 13, I found comfort in picking up a book and being immersed in someone else’s adventure. My favorites were young adult and science fiction novels, and I would devour them, sometimes reading a book a day. Any teenage-hero driven, “Hunger Games”-esque series—you name it and I’ve read it. The appeal of these kinds of books was that the characters had lives that were exciting and important but they were still the same age as me and they had some of the same problems. The protagonist, as brave and heroic as they were, often still struggled with their identity and place in the world, but they always ended up with a happy ending. 

In theory, I still love to read, but I usually have less free time now than I used to. The exception, of course, is right now. Ever since I started social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been presented with more free time than I have ever had in my life. A few weeks ago, toward the end of spring break, I was spinning in my desk chair, trying to think of something to do when my eyes landed on a worn, yellow hardback on my bookshelf. The spine said “Carry On” by Rainbow Rowell. It was one of my old favorites, and I’d read it probably three or four times when I was younger. All the love I used to have for that book came rushing back and I decided right then I would read it again.

I finished it within days and I have been working my way through the rest of my shelf ever since. The joy I used to get from reading is back, and the comfort of stories about teenagers overcoming apocalyptic situations has taken on a new meaning in the time of coronavirus. It reminds me that however difficult this time may be, it is temporary. On a more basic level, reading has a lot of scientifically-proven mental health benefits, and I think it is an underrated coping strategy for dealing with hard times.

A study conducted by the University of Sussex shows that reading is the absolute best way to reduce stress, as long as it’s about something that interests you and will allow you to relax. That means that assigned reading and the news, although important, do not count when it comes to reading for pleasure. The article suggests that fiction is one of the best options because it allows you to escape into another world. I’ve found that non-realistic fiction is the best because it is the most removed from my own world. 

Another reason to read fiction lies in how our minds respond to it. According to the New York Times, the human brain responds to interactions between fictional characters similarly to real life social situations. This means that not only can reading help you destress, it can also simulate the happy feelings you usually get from seeing your friends. For the same reason, it also helps improve real-life social skills and develops empathy. 

The research described in this article made a lot of sense to me because it put science behind something that has always been true for me. During times in my life when I feel lonely or isolated, the happiness I find in books goes beyond that of a mindless distraction. It brings me joy that feels similar to that of my real life relationships and according to these studies, that’s because it is. 

Lastly, although I don’t think this should be your only reason, reading also makes you smarter. CNBC reports that in addition to building emotional intelligence, fiction helps improve vocabulary and increases brain activity. This is true of literally any type of fiction, so whatever makes you happy, whether it’s Shakespeare or comic books, will benefit your brain.

Reading fiction is a great way to fill time and stay happy during social distancing, but it’s good for you all the time. I regret that it took a global pandemic to get me to start reading again, and I don’t want to let that happen again. Now that I remember how much I love to read, I want to keep doing it, even when I am busy with my regular life and it feels easier to scroll through social media after a long day. 

So, if you’re looking to be reassured about the state of our world, missing your social life or wanting to build your vocabulary, find your own fictional universe to dive into. I highly recommend “Carry On” if you’re looking for a balance between a good message and light-hearted adventure, but I understand that YA wizards and vampires aren’t for everyone. Whatever story you choose, I hope you find a home there.