Via Wiki­media Commons

“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.