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With lockdown in place, many of us are limited in our choice of activity, with our usual daily routines and habits in disarray. One question for many people now is, 'what should I do in my free time?'
As I had already been working from home long before lockdown was enforced, I assumed that it would be a walk in the park for me. However, I soon came to realise, just how much of my time had been spent out of the house; whether it be seeing friends or going to the gym. And these activities had allowed something important; for me to switch off. Now that they have been paused, I noticed I was beginning to struggle. Forced to find a new way to switch off the monkey mind and work mode, I looked through my collection of books that I had always shelved until I ‘had the time’. Now, whether I liked it or not, I had that time.
For the past couple of weeks, a walk around the block with an audiobook, or taking a book into my garden has become a daily ritual for me at the end of my workday. Its positive impact on my state of mind has been a revelation for me. I had always previously read books with the purpose of increasing my intelligence, but I had never really considered how it could help my overall mood and happiness. So, what does the current research have to say about the relationship between reading and mental health?
A joint study published in 2015 by the University of Liverpool and Quick Reads outlined a number of interesting results of the relationship between reading and its effect on stress and depression.  The report found that:
#1 Non-readers are 28% more likely to report feelings of depression, with adults who read just 30 minutes a week being 20% more likely to report greater life satisfaction.
#2 Those who read for pleasure have higher levels of self-esteem, and a greater ability to cope with difficult circumstances.
The act of reading is also reported to help those who suffer with existing mental health conditions. Schemes such as those run by Reading Well have seen results with those who suffer from mental health conditions by using books to help people better understand their illness.  The scheme prescribes books recommended and endorsed by health specialists and has helped over 1.2 million people.
#1 90% of those finding their prescribed book helpful.
#2 85% reported that they felt better about managing their symptoms
#3 55% reporting their symptoms had got better.
Whilst we are unable to see friends and family at this time, it is only natural that people have begun to experience a sense of loneliness. Read more about this here.
#1 Reading books can significantly reduce feelings of loneliness of adults aged 18-64.
#2 Just 30 minutes of reading a week means you’re 52% more likely to report feelings of social inclusion and 72% likelier to have a greater community spirit.
Gathered reading like groups and book clubs, have been linked with greater levels of shared community and common purpose which generally leads to higher levels of confidence, self-esteem and quality of life. Our ‘sympathetic intuitions’ are raised when we immerse ourselves in the characters of our favourite book, initiating a sense of being ‘a part of the wider human community.’ Those who read are more likely to report greater satisfaction in their social lives, a key factor in any measure of individual happiness. 
Connecting with a character, experiencing their trials and tribulations, allows for the reader to venture deeper into other’s obstacles. This can provide perspective to one’s own problems, and teach empathy that can then be relayed into real life situations. 
Reading provides an opportunity to see the world through another lens and learn other’s perceptions of how they view the world and how they justify their actions.
Audiobooks: for those who find it hard to sit still, get stuck into a book, or even find the act of reading boring, this is your answer. I find an audiobook handy to accompany my daily walks now, or whilst having to do mindless chores around the house.
Set a time: Similar to building any habit, it is best to set aside a specific time for reading. Like having physical exercise penned in, mental exercise is just as much of a priority. I personally don’t like reading before bedtime, so I typically read after finishing my working day to help me switch off.
Visual Tracker: Following the words with a pen or a bookmark has helped my concentration greatly, making it far easier to follow the story and less common that I would have to reread a section.
Start with a short book: Don’t go starting with a huge novel if you haven’t read in years. Start with a reasonably short novel and build your way up as your concentration and attention span efforts increase.
Bonus: I highly recommend Audiobooks narrated by Stephen Fry, who reads stories from Sherlock Holmes to Greek Mythology.