Bibliotherapy: The New Practice That Can Make You Healthier & Happier

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The bookworms amongst us might already be well aware about the joys of diving into a novel, but the benefits of reading appears to go beyond being able to immerse ourselves in an exciting story. According to some experts, the practice of reading can be a form of therapy, often used in treatment for anxiety, depression and personal challenges. Called bibliotherapy, reading books is also an activity that elevates individuals’ mood and wellbeing.

While the concept of reading books for its therapeutic effects has been around for centuries, the term bibliotherapy was first recorded in a 1916 article in The Atlantic Monthly titled “A Literary Clinic”. The author of the article, Samuel McChord Crothers, believed that reading books could help “put new life into us and then set the life pulse strong but slow.”

Fast-forward to today, the practice of bibliotherapy takes many forms. Think book courses for prison inmates, literature groups amongst elderly dementia patients or simply curling up in the comfort of your own home for some one-on-one time with a good old novel. Though avid readers have practically been self-medicating with fascinating books for decades, it might come to a surprise for others who have yet to discover the relationship between our own health and reading. 

In recent years, more scientific evidence has emerged validating the claims of bibliotherapists. A 2011 study, for instance, found that the brain scans of those who read about an experience showed stimulation in the same neurological areas as when we go through first-hand experiences. In other words, we use the same brain networks when we read stories and when we’re trying to feel another person’s emotions. Some therapists therefore use bibliotherapy as an adjunct part of a treatment process for people coping with relationship issues or struggling with empathy. 

Bibliotherapy can also help target mental illnesses such as anxiety, depression, feelings of isolation and meaninglessness and other individual personal struggles in various ways. For example, a novel about a character overcoming their challenges can help a reader gain insight into their own emotions and stimulate creative and positive problem-solving strategies. Aside from self-awareness, stories help readers provide perspective and demonstrate that each person is on a journey to navigate their own obstacles. 

A more recent study, published in 2017 in the Journal of the Canadian Health Libraries Association, found that reading books – even recreationally – can serve as a wellness tool to help maintain mental wellbeing and boost levels of happiness. The researchers found that a bibliotherapy-based reading program was an effective way to promote health, wellness and resilience amongst hospital employees and in work relationships.

So, the next time you’re scratching your head for an afternoon activity on the weekend, booking yourself in for a reading hour might just be the healthiest answer.

Thinking about what to read? Explore these 5 books on low-waste living or take a look at the best 6 environmental books for your kids!

Lead image courtesy of Getty Images.


  • Sally Ho

    Sally Ho is Green Queen's former resident writer and lead reporter. Passionate about the environment, social issues and health, she is always looking into the latest climate stories in Hong Kong and beyond. A long-time vegan, she also hopes to promote healthy and plant-based lifestyle choices in Asia. Sally has a background in Politics and International Relations from her studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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