Read To Happiness: How Words Can Change Your Life
We bring you new research on how to stay young and happy
To keeping the spirit thriving, keeping the mind in thoughtful engagement is important. One way to do that is by reading books. George R.R. Martin, the author of A Game of Thrones, wrote, ‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.’
Dr Krishnaswamy Kasturirangan, 78, is an Indian space scientist, who headed the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) from 1994 to 2003 and is now the chairman of the Karnataka Knowledge Commission. He has this to say about reading: ‘Through my lifetime, I have been a voracious reader. Particularly during my school and college days. The holidays were spent reading on subjects unrelated to school and college studies. The thing is, you never know when you are going to apply what you have learnt, but believe me, it all comes together and becomes part of your brain, which uses it to solve the challenges you face in work or life. Your mind is like a sponge, so feed it well (with reading) and it will serve you well.’
Reading a book is effortful fun. You can get lost in it for hours if it is a novel with a well-knit plot or a biography of someone you deeply admire or on a subject that you are passionate about, but it does take your mind effort. That’s because there are two distinct things your mind is up to when you read a book. The first is that as you read, your brain draws connections between what you read and what is happening in the outside world. This process is called ‘cognitive engagement’ and researchers think that this brain work is the reason reading is associated with an increased vocabulary, concentration, better reasoning and critical thinking skills. The other thing that reading books does is build empathy and emotional intelligence. Together, these constitute our ability to be aware of and express our emotions while being aware of the emotions of others, so that we respond to situations in a way that is win-win for all. As the mind gets more cognitively engaged and enhances our emotional intelligence, our spirit is enlivened, helping us thrive and live longer.
There is research to prove this. A group of researchers from Yale University School of Public Health looked at people over the age of 50 and recorded their reading habits. They then followed these study participants over a 12-year period, and guess what they found? They learnt that those participants who read for more than 3.5 hours a week were 23 per cent more likely to live during the follow-up period. The researchers concluded that readers have a ‘significant survival advantage’ over those who don’t read books. There is a distinction between how hard the brain works when reading a book and reading a magazine. This research, and this chapter, for that matter, is about the rich dividends in store for book readers. Not suggesting here that reading magazines wouldn’t be beneficial, just that it may not be as beneficial as reading books, for the simple reason that it isn’t as effortful and your brain isn’t working on it for an extended period, like it would when you are reading a book.
Nandita Sen is 90 years old and lives in Hyderabad. She is one of our family’s oldest and dearest friends. I called her to talk to her about her reading habit, because my mother told me that she reads eight books a month. When I ask Nandita di, as she is fondly called by all who know her, about this, she says that she never counted book numbers by month. ‘How this came about is that libraries only lend books by the month, and since I can’t really go more than once a month, I decided I would take out as many books as I could carry, which turned out to be about eight books a month. Of course, if there is one hefty book 500 pages long or a book in fine print or fine paper, the number goes down. I fell in love with books as a child. When I was five years old, and I got chicken pox, and my father left ten books by my bedside. There were fascinating books in that pile. One was called Balaka. It was about flying swans. To this day, the name is stuck in my mind. As one grows older, the books one is attracted to also changes. Now, my interests include books on philosophy, science, ethics and literature like Shakespeare, among others.’ She says that she wants to stay sharp in the mind and reading gives the brain a valuable workout. ‘I do think that books are better than magazines at keeping you sharp because they have a viewpoint that you can either agree or disagree with, but you need to read the whole book to learn the argument and it takes time and considerable effort to read the book, particularly if you want to take it in fully.’ She is a sprightly, warm lady with a strong voice of conviction when she shares her views. We talk about many other things and as our conversation draws to a close, I ask her what the secret to her longevity is. She replies, ‘Don’t know the answer to that one! I only know that one can’t live without the ability to think or reason. How long one lives doesn’t really count. The art of living, grounded to earth, the ability to add to the betterment of those around me, is the only way I know to live. I am still fighting the irrationality that harms those around us. I will stop the day I can no longer think fruitfully.’
Dave Price, sixty-six, is a Washington DC-based journalist who writes on issues of ageing. In an email interview, he writes, ‘We are gaining great evidence that readers tend to live longer than non-readers. That may be due to other life traits that readers have, but there is a correlation nevertheless. As far as my opinion (is concerned), I absolutely believe reading helps extend life by making it better. In life, after health, much of your fulfillment and enjoyment centre in your passion, your purpose, and your perseverance. Reading widely can help you find your passion(s), turn that into a purpose, and give you guidance when you seem to be unable to persevere.’ Like Nandita di, Dave averages eight-ten books a month.
The benefits of reading far outweigh the cost of effort. If you’re a little rusty on reading, a great way to start is to join a book club. You can also read books by your favourite author. Or read about your hobbies or interests after researching reviews. Or you can choose award-winning books. Or books by literary giants that you always meant to read but didn’t get around to. And with online stores and reading apps, books are now literally at your fingertips. For those of you who aren’t reading as much as you’d like, Dave Price suggests the following, ‘In life, we all like to do what we want to do when we want to do it. Therefore, to reluctant readers, as a writer and a teacher, I always give this advice—find something you are interested in or think you might want to do, find a book on that, set aside a good time in your daily schedule to read, find a comfortable place to read without disturbances, and have at it. The more you read, the easier it becomes, the more you understand, the better your life can be with that understanding now yours.’
Khaled Hosseini, the Afghanistan-born physician-turned-novelist who wrote A Thousand Splendid Suns, says, ‘Reading is an active, imaginative act; it takes work.’ True. But it’s work that will lift your spirits and make your imagination soar. Work that will add more warp and weft to your life.