We live in an age of loneliness, despite the appearance of connection given to us by social media. In fact, loneliness is a modern plague that’s even more dangerous than smoking and obesity. Studies have shown that loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26%. That makes lacking social connections as damaging to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Aside from putting our smartphones away and having more in-person interactions, books are also good antidotes to loneliness. Below are five ways books can help combat loneliness.
1. We become effective in communicating our thoughts.
Often times, loneliness stems from feeling misunderstood. We may be surrounded by people (in real life or on social media) yet remain isolated in our thoughts. Books can help us become more adept at expressing ourselves through language. By reading prose, poetry, and a character’s inner dialogue, we familiarize ourselves with words and concepts that can help us better explain our deeper thoughts.
We may also encounter others (whether fictional or real) who’ve shared similar experiences with us and help us to feel that we are not alone in our struggles or hurts. Their ability to express what they are going through can help us put words to our thoughts and experiences as well.
2. We have more empathy.
When reading stories about characters and the challenges they face, we develop sympathy for them. This can translate to having more compassion for people in real life, which allows us to connect with them. Reading a book is a great way to “walk a mile” in someone else’s shoes and learn just what it is like to be that person and experience what he or she has experienced.
A study published in Science found that reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or nonfiction, results in keener social perception and increased empathy. For instance, children who read Harry Potter have more compassion towards stigmatized groups. Reading cultivates our ability to understand and share the feelings of another, which is essential for human connection.
3. We learn to embrace our solitude.
Many memoirs and self-discovery books, such as Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, talks about a person’s solo journey and how they discovered who they were as they embraced their solitude. Through reading such books, we can appreciate that being alone is part of the human experience. As Douglas Coupland says, “Remember: the time you feel lonely is the time you most need to be by yourself. Life’s cruelest irony.”
4. We become immersed in another world.
Books, especially memoirs and fiction, enables us to escape from our realities where we become immersed in another world. We grow attached to the characters and setting, making us feel as if we’re also a part of the journey as the plot unravels. For example, when I traveled Australia in 2005, reading books by local authors—both fiction and nonfiction—was a great way to learn more about the culture and country and to experience Australia in a deeper way.
5. We become a part of the book community.
Reading books isn’t necessarily a solitary activity. We may find other people who share similar interests, in which we can exchange books, recommendations, and our thoughts about an author or novel. By reading more books, we’ll also have more interesting things to talk about. My husband and I still enjoy discussing books we’ve both read and I’m often delighted to discover that a friend is reading a book I’ve enjoyed. Whether through a book club, an online bookstore or community like Goodreads, books are pathways to a wider community.
How do you combat loneliness?