Catterina Seia 12 October 2021 13 min read

Reading: the road to a better quality of life

According to a Yale University study on over 3,000 volunteers over 50 years old, people who read at least one chapter a day will live two years longer than those who do not read.

According to the study A chapter a day: Association of book reading with longevity, published in 2016 in the scientific journal Social Science & Medicine, those who read at least one chapter a day, live two years longer than those who don’t.

A paper that followed a year later, The impact of reading for pleasure and empowerment, a literature review conducted by The Reading Agency, a UK agency to promote reading for the whole population, with BOP Consulting and the Peter Sowerby Foundation, built a strong base of evidence to inform and guide policies to promote reading in the U.K.

The benefits of reading

Reading is potentially packed with benefits, to promote psychological health and with a biological impact in the short, medium and long term.

It is not hard to believe, as reading increases knowledge of the world, but also of oneself and others, enhances memory and concentration, stimulates imagination and critical ability, enriches language, increases emotional literacy and reduces stress.

The benefits of reading aloud by carers are proven from the first thousand days, starting from pregnancy, a time when the human brain is at its most elastic and neural links are formed at a unique pace.

The international scientific community agrees that it is important to invest in infancy, as it has been shown that early experiences have a major influence on our way of thinking and relating, and on our skills and abilities in adulthood.

This is the thrust of the European project ELiNet, coordinated by the University of Cologne and involving 27 European countries with 79 partner organisations, which has created a network of good practices to promote literacy from an early age and raise literacy levels.

The project includes Nati per leggere (Born to Read) an initiative promoted by the Associazione Culturale Pediatri (Paediatricians' Cultural Association), together with the Associazione Italiana Biblioteche (Italian Library Association) and the Centro per la Salute del Bambino (Child Health Centre), which has been coordinating it for twenty years in every region in Italy. It involves a network of libraries, staff and volunteers trained to promote family reading activities that are an important experience for child cognitive development and parents’ ability to develop together with their children.

The benefits of reading, relying on cognitive aspects, and on relational and psychological dimensions, also have a biological impact.

There is a wonderful story from the UK of a large community that has made reading aloud a tool for social inclusion and cohesion, as well as a cure for the marginalisation and isolation caused by mental illness. This is The Reader, which boasts 700 groups nationwide, 1,000 volunteers and over 11,000 readers per year. From the organisation's point of view, gained on the ground, reading creates a greater connection between people, produces a feeling of well-being, feeds the sense of life, increases people's familiarity with reading in general, and also brings cultural benefits.  

Feedback sessions that the organisation regularly holds with its participants record very high levels of satisfaction.

For example, in reading groups in prisons and psychiatric hospitals, 82% of readers said that hearing others’ points of view through books helps them think differently about things and gain a new perspective on life. Volunteers themselves also report significant positive impact: 94% say they feel a sense of achievement, 86% enjoy reading more and 84% have an increased sense of well-being.

Bibliotherapy - books as a method of treatment

Bibliotherapy is a real discipline that dates back to the 1930s. It is part of the fields of psychiatry and clinical psychology, and was created by psychiatrist William C. Menninger, who, together with his brother Karl, began to prescribe reading books to patients at his private clinic.

Menninger was the first to publish a scientific article in which he described the means of application and the results of using books as a treatment method. In the early days, it was used mainly to rehabilitate soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress caused by the battles of the First World War and was later extended to the whole population.

It is a method that encourages a creative and rational use of reading. Starting with a project and through the aid of a facilitator, it aims to promote well-being, development, comparison and self-knowledge.

Bibliotherapy worldwide

Bibliotherapy is now internationally recognised and is not limited to the United States, where it is widespread and used in various forms. In the U.S. it is common in schools, medical and psychological help centres, and even in spiritual aid contexts. It has also spread to Europe, especially in the United Kingdom, thanks to a series of projects that have enhanced its use.

Institutional support for the positive effects of bibliotherapy as a complementary medical practice does not exist worldwide and in countries such in Italy, its use is still linked to individual experts.

However, a grassroots movement is emerging to promote reading, forming alliances at local levels between public administrations and libraries, through the Manifesto dei Patti per la lettura (Manifesto of Pacts for Reading).

Its aim is to highlight how reading is a tool for building an open and inclusive society through cooperation, to promote networks between public and private bodies, libraries, schools and third sector organisations, to support and encourage permanent cooperation locally. Through its actions the movement aims to make reading accessible, without leaving the most fragile groups behind, to broaden the base of regular readers and to consolidate reading habits, especially in areas where there is a low level of participation in the arts.

The UK is at the forefront of this. With The Reading Agency, the British government has created a body whose mission highlights this perspective of enormous potential.

“At The Reading Agency we work every day towards a world where everyone is reading their way to a better life. We mean everyone – from babies to children, young adults, prisoners and the elderly - irrespective of age or economic background. We believe that reading can tackle life's big challenges, from social mobility to mental health and we are determined that no one will be left behind. In 2019-20, The Reading Agency reached over 1.8 million people across the UK, including over 950,000 children and more than 900,000 adults and young people. As an organisation we believe that it doesn't matter what you read, as long as you read. Whatever your fancy or needs, we believe there's a book for you and our programmes are designed to help unlock the value and benefit of reading”. This declaration has borne fruit in countless initiatives, including the Reading Well portal, which provides advice from medical experts to help understand and manage people's health and well-being using effective reading. Reading Well books are all recommended by health experts. 2.6 million Reading Well books have been borrowed from libraries and 91% of people who were asked said that found their book useful.

The road is open.


By Catterina Seia and Neve Mazzoleni, cultural manager and social impact expert

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Catterina Seia

Member of the IBSA Foundation Advisory Board with an active role in the Cultura e Salute project. Co-Founder and Vice-President of the Fitzcarraldo Foundation since 2013, a leading research body dealing with the cultural policies of public entities, private bodies and public authorities. Since 2009, she has been Vice President of the Medicina a Misura di Donna Foundation, the body that promotes gender-specific health, based in the Gynaecology and Obstetrics Department of the Sant’Anna Hospital in Turin (Italy). She set up and has been managing the first inter-disciplinary platform for research-action on the alliance between Art, health and social change for the Body since 2011. This platform is considered to be a role model for the commitment to the development of the virtuous relationship between cultural participation and the humanization of the healthcare and well-being of people and organizations. From 2011 to 2019, after having overseen research reports, she headed the Giornale delle Fondazioni. She is the scientific manager of Arte e Impresa, the newspaper of the Giornale dell’Arte and the monthly publication of studies Letture Lente by AgCult. She is also President and Associate Founder of CCW Cultural Welfare Center.