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How Reading Might Make You Happier

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Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD - Blogs
By Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhDPsychologistDecember 01, 2015
From the WebMD Archives

Everyone needs a little help getting through life sometimes. Relationship problems, depression, anxiety, grief, substance abuse, health issues… the list goes on and on. You might find help by turning to family, friends, self-help associations, or mental health professionals. Another way people find help is through books. Sometimes they stumble upon one that has an impact; other times, they seek out a specific book because they hope it can help them. Looking to books for help is called “bibliotherapy.”

There is no limitation of what kinds of books can help people. They can be picture books, audiobooks, poetry, graphic novels, or workbooks. They can be either fiction or non-fiction. What matters most is that they are useful to the reader.

Two professors at Oregon State University, Pehrsson and McMillen, believed strongly in the power of literature to help people. So they began the Bibliotherapy Project, which is now based at Central Michigan University. They have listed these benefits of bibliotherapy:

  • Offering a temporary escape from problems
  • Increasing self-awareness and personal insights
  • Clarifying people’s values
  • Increasing people’s appreciation of their own and other cultural identities and perspectives
  • Nurturing empathy for self and others
  • Providing comfort, hope, and reassurance
  • Giving people the sense that they are not the only ones in the world with their experiences
  • Relieving stress and anxiety
  • Motivating people to change
  • Offering knowledge and skills to guide people in how to cope with their difficulties and experiences (e.g. interpersonal skills, ways to enhance self-esteem)

If you’re mostly looking for a chance to step out of your problems for a while, then choose a book that you’ll enjoy reading – not one that you think you “should” read. If you are more interested in addressing a problem, then begin by deciding whether you want a direct self-help book or more of a story that will offer a source of emotional connection, insights, support, and motivation.

To decide on a self-help book, you might browse the shelves of your local bookstore or look online. You might also want to go to the websites of nonprofit organizations that address your kind of problem and see if they provide book recommendations – this has a better chance of steering you in the direction of a more effective book. If you are in therapy, ask your therapist for a recommendation. But no matter where you learn about a book, it’s very important that you get a sense of the book and decide whether it “feels” like a helpful approach. A self-help book will only be effective if you believe in what it has to say.

If you are more interested in immersing yourself in literature, you must think about what kind of literature you’d like to read – such as poetry, a novel (and what kind), or a comic book. Finding something that will help you with a particular issue might take some work. Again, you might find a good suggestion on the website of a nonprofit organization for your type of problem or by using a search engine. You might also ask a friend or therapist for a recommendation.

The Bibliotherapy Education Project is a wonderful resource for learning more about bibliotherapy and for searching for a book that can meet your needs. On the Advanced Search page, you can search for a book based on age, format (e.g. novel, poems), subject (e.g. grief, relationships), language, gender of the main character, and more.

If you enjoy reading, give bibliotherapy a try. Although it is not a replacement for the support of friends and family or getting professional help, it can help you navigate many of life’s problems – offering opportunities for you to gain personal insights, learn new skills, feel better, and improve the quality of your life and your relationships.

Entries for the Relationships blog are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for individual professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you need help for an emotional or behavioral problem, please seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.

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About the Author
Leslie Becker-Phelps, PhD

Dr. Becker-Phelps is a licensed psychologist in NJ and NY, and is on staff at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, Somerset. She is dedicated to helping people understand themselves and what they need to do to become emotionally and psychologically healthy. She accomplishes this through her work as a psychotherapist, speaker and writer. She is the author of Bouncing Back from Rejection and Insecure in Love.

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