“What do you do for fun?” More than any other, this question shows us just how little we do with our free time. A common fallback response to this question is “I like to read,” but rarely do we actually spend our free time reading. We do too much of that in our classes, so for fun we turn to TV, video games, or social media to entertain us. But it’s time to turn our fallback answer into a reality: reading for fun, especially fiction, is not only one of the best ways to destress, but also something to enjoy for its own sake.
The texts that we use in our classes undeniably have educational value. But reading fiction confers its own set of benefits unique from non-fiction. Because fiction engages the imagination in the creation of a narrative, it’s been linked to increased empathy, improved memory, and, according to the Mayo Clinic, better quality of sleep — all benefits students are missing out on if Heidegger, not fiction, is the last thing we read before bed.
However, after a long day of studying, classes, and writing papers, the thought of more mental activity seems exhausting. That’s why so many of us — myself included — turn to TV as a way to unwind. Watching TV can seem particularly appealing: because it’s a passive activity, you’re only required to absorb what’s happening to the characters on-screen. Since this requires so little mental activity, it can seem like the best way to disengage from the amount of energy required by our college classes.
But reading offers the perfect balance between the two extremes of intense concentration required for academics and the little energy TV asks of us. Reading engages us because we’re not only processing the words on the page, but also our thoughts and feelings about them, and using our imagination to fill in the gaps and construct the scene in our mind.
It also gives us a break, redirecting our focus to a story that’s completely unconnected to the stresses of day-to-day life. This is why the “fun” part of “reading for fun” is so important — an activity one does for fun still feels like a break. Unlike the 50 pages of American Heritage reading that require diligence and focus, a book chosen for fun is its own motivator and provides a welcome relief. I don’t need to prepare myself to get through “Pride and Prejudice”; my enjoyment of the story draws me in.
Finally, reading also relieves stress, a benefit students sorely need. Researchers at the University of Sussex found that reading was the most effective means of reducing stress out of several different methods tested. Only six minutes of reading a novel or poetry resulted in a 68 percent reduction in stress levels, beating out listening to music, drinking tea, or even taking a walk.
Reading fiction for fun is the best way possible to incur the benefits of reading and destress from the life of a college student. Rather than zoning out in front of yet another rerun of The Office, picking up a book for even 15 minutes will leave you feeling more refreshed than you would otherwise. And the next time someone asks you what you do for fun, you can respond honestly, “I like to read. In fact, I just finished the best book…”
Ms. Matthes is a senior George Washington Fellow studying politics.