Will Reading Books Make You Any Happier?

By Alan Mozes HealthDay Reporter>

Friday, January 7, 2022 – When it comes to what makes us happy, is reading or listening to music better than spending hours playing video games?

Not really, say a team of researchers from the UK and Austria.

“Many people believe that traditional media, such as reading books or listening to music, are good for us,” said study leader Niclas Johans of the University of Oxford.

“It is surprising that we do not have good evidence as to whether this is the case,” he said. “In fact, this belief that modern media is harmful but traditional media is beneficial can be somewhat elitist.”

To find out more, Johannes and his colleagues tracked the media use of nearly 2,200 British participants for two months. Their habits were then compared to the level of anxiety and happiness reported by the participants.

The study showed that it didn’t matter much how much time people spent reading their noses at a book versus leaning toward technology. In the end, both leisure-time pursuits had roughly the same effect on a person’s sense of well-being.

Johannes, a postdoctoral researcher in the Oxford Institute’s program focusing on adolescent well-being in the digital age, set out to find out how seven types of media affected participants’ happiness and anxiety levels.

Six weekly surveys were conducted for a representative sample of persons 16 years of age and older.

Participants reported whether they had interacted with music, television, movies, video games, books, magazines, and/or audiobooks during the previous week and how much time they spent on each activity. They also reported how happy and/or anxious they were the day before each survey.

The researchers found that people who read or listened to audio books had no increase in happiness compared to those who did not. And they weren’t the least bit worried.

At the same time, participants who enjoyed music, television, movies, and/or video games appeared to be slightly more complex than those who did not.

“These differences were too small – too small for people to notice,” Johannes stressed.

The researchers concluded that the medium a person uses or for how long has “little or no effect” on happiness.

“It’s easy to point out to the media when we’re having big social problems, like mental health,” Johannes said. “But research generally shows that the media’s impact on mental health is minimal. So its bad reputation certainly isn’t deserved.”

However, Johannes noted that sharing on social media was not among the activities the researchers analyzed. And while they calculated the time they spent with different types of media, the researchers didn’t delve into the specific content of any of the books, magazines, music, videos, or games.

Which means that for now, the results should be interpreted as correlations, he said, not as evidence of cause and effect.

The results were published January 6 in the journal Scientific Reports.

James Maddox, professor emeritus of psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, reviewed the findings.

He pointed out that the study did not address the fact that modern life is not neatly divided between old and new technology. Maddux, for example, noted that when he reads, 90% of the time he does so in front of the computer.

Describing himself as “one of those arrogant elites” who had long believed that reading books was a better use of time than watching TV or playing video games, Maddox said the results shocked him as “a bit surprising.”

He suggested that the next step might be for researchers to dig deeper into the actual content of media consumed, in order to find out whether what is absorbed is more important than how much is absorbed.

A study conducted several years ago found that reading what is often called ‘literary fiction’ – [meaning] “Jane Austen vs. John Grisham – they can lead to an increased capacity for empathy,” Maddox said. “So maybe it’s also important what kind of movies and series people are watching.”

Maddox added that it would be great if the authors of this study could have access to that information.

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