Skip to content

Blog post Part of special issue: To read, or not to read?

Reading and wellbeing: Exploring the relationship between reading fiction and wellbeing across the lifespan

Nicola Currie, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at University of Edinburgh

Reading fiction has a range of established benefits for learning, providing a strong foundation for the development of vocabulary knowledge and literacy-related skills (Mar & Rain, 2015; Mol & Bus, 2011). More recently, reading has also been related to increased psychological wellbeing (Clark & Teravainen-Goff, 2018). However, despite such findings, we know very little about readers’ perceptions of whether, and how, reading fiction supports their psychological wellbeing and whether these perceptions differ across the lifespan. We will address these critical questions in our new project, ‘Reading and Wellbeing: Developmental and Diverse Perspectives’. This blog introduces the concepts that we plan to explore in the project to further our understanding of the relationship between reading fiction and wellbeing.

‘Wellbeing is a complex term, encompassing feelings of subjective happiness through to relationships with others and personal growth.’

Wellbeing is a complex term, encompassing feelings of subjective happiness through to relationships with others and personal growth (Deci & Ryan, 2006; Diener et al., 2018). To give insight into how fiction reading influences different aspects of wellbeing, our project will explore the emotions generated by books and how these support readers’ feelings of positive affect. We will then ask participants how reading fiction encourages them to experience feelings of connection with book characters and others in their daily lives, and then ask what readers learn from fiction, in order to assess if it enables their personal growth. We will discuss these concepts with children, adolescents, adults and older adults.

So, what do we know already about the influence of fiction on readers’ positive affect, experiences of connection with others, and their personal growth? With regards to positive affect, emotions could play a pivotal role, influencing book choice and the degree to which a reader engages with a text (Mar et al., 2011). There may even be books that have an emotional impact long after the final page is turned. Despite some genres of fiction eliciting feelings of tension, or even sadness, readers continue to read on and ultimately still find this rewarding (Mar et al., 2011). We want to learn more about the emotions books elicit and why, and the effect this has on readers.

Although fictional books depict the lives of imagined characters, readers can experience connection with these characters. Connection experiences could be varied, from understanding the events characters encounter, to characters providing a means of social surrogacy or even one-way friendship (Oatley, 2021). Connecting with characters involves being able to empathise, sympathise and understand their perspective (Mar et al., 2011). As researchers, we are interested in the mechanisms behind this connection but also how reading can foster connection in the real world, for example through attendance at reading groups, shared reading between children and caregivers, or visits to the library (Scottish Book Trust, 2021).

Fictional books also offer various opportunities for personal growth.Readers can simulate events that they may never encounter, relive experiences from their own lives, or gain completely new perspectives (Oatley, 2021; Mar et al., 2011). Although some readers might be aware of these opportunities for personal introspection, others may not have considered fiction as a tool for such learning. We will ask readers what, if anything, they have learned from fictional texts.

One pertinent factor to consider when trying to understand the relationship between fiction reading and wellbeing is that an individual’s knowledge and life experience may interact with the books they read (Eekhof et al., 2022). It could perhaps be these unique interactions that enable fiction books to provide a form of individualised support for wellbeing – for instance, books might allow readers to revisit and process lived experiences from new perspectives. By using in-depth qualitative interviews with individuals across the lifespan, we hope to be able to better understand the various ways in which reading fiction may support wellbeing.


Clark, C., & Teravainen-Goff, A. (2018). Mental wellbeing, reading and writing. National Literacy Trust.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2008). Hedonia, eudaimonia, and well-being: An introduction. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9, 1–11

Diener, E., Lucas, R. E., & Shigehiro, O. (2018). Advances and open questions in the science of subjective well-being. Collabra: Psychology, 4(1), 15.

Eekhof, L. S., van Krieken, K., & Willems, R. M. (2022). Reading about minds: The social-cognitive potential of narratives. Psychonomic Bulletin Review, 29, 1703–1718.

Mar, R. A., Oatley, K., Djikic, M., & Mullin, J. (2011). Emotion and narrative fiction: Interactive influences before, during, and after reading. Cognition and Emotion, 25(5), 818–833.

Mar, R. A., & Rain, M. (2015). Narrative fiction and expository nonfiction differentially predict verbal ability. Scientific Studies of Reading, 19(6), 419–433.

Mol, S. E., & Bus, A. G. (2011). To read or not to read: A meta-analysis of print exposure from infancy to early adulthood. Psychological Bulletin, 137(2), 267–296.

Oatley, K. (2021). Books as friends. The Psychologist, 34, 64–67.

Scottish Book Trust. (2021). Reading in Scotland: Reading over lockdown.  


Reading and Wellbeing Project Team:

Postdoctoral Researcher: Dr Nicola Currie, University of Edinburgh
Principal Investigator: Dr Sarah McGeown, University of Edinburgh
Co-Investigator: Professor Gemma Moss, Institute of Education, UCL
Project partners: Katherine Wilkinson, Head of Research and Evaluation, Scottish Book Trust, Christina Clark, Director of Research, National Literacy Trust

Further information: