As if you needed another reason to buy more books, a 2011 study found that reading fiction can alleviate loneliness, so schedule a visit to your local library A.S.A.P., because no one deserves to be lonely. Two researchers at the University of Buffalo, Shira Gabriel and Ariana F. Young, found that “narratives alleviate loneliness by providing a collective identity that is easily assumed and psychologically rewarding.” Here’s what happened in that study.
Published in a 2011 issue of Psychological Science as “Becoming a Vampire Without Being Bitten: The Narrative Collective-Assimilation Hypothesis,” Gabriel and Young’s study examined how 140 college students responded to reading selections from Twilight and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. (Beyond suddenly developing a very strong identity as a “Hufflepuff” or “Ravenclaw.”) After taking an assessment to “measur[e their] tendency to fulfill the need to belong through collective and relational bonds” — A.K.A. social groups — the students were given either chapter 13 of Twilight or chapters 7 and 8 of Sorcerer’s Stone to read for 30 minutes. Participants then completed an Implicit Association Test (IAT) to see how strongly they identified with either vampires or wizards after reading from the YA novels. Gabriel and Young found that students who “tended to fulfill their belongingness needs through collectives” were more likely to identify with the characters of Twilight and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
So how does reading alleviate loneliness? Basically, by mimicking the effects of socializing with a group and providing a collective identity, according to Gabriel and Young.
“[A]lthough previous research found that narratives alleviate loneliness,” the researchers wrote, “no specific mechanism for that action was identified. The current research suggests that narratives alleviate loneliness by providing a collective identity that is easily assumed and psychologically rewarding.”
Of course, no one is suggesting that you should replace all of your friends with books — unless you have really bad friends, in which case you should definitely spend more time with Ron and Hermione until you have friends who match their level of loyalty. What Gabriel and Young’s work shows us is how solo activities like reading, watching movies, or playing single-player video games can provide introverted individuals like Yours Truly with the same fulfillment as interpersonal interactions. If that’s true, then reading a good book could also help extroverts who are prevented from seeing their friends, for whatever reason, to cope with isolation.
“The pleasure of immersing oneself in narratives is not surprising or novel to anyone who has ever been lucky enough to get lost in a good book,” Gabriel and Young wrote. “However, the current research suggests that books give readers more than an opportunity to tune out and submerge themselves in fantasy worlds. Books provide the opportunity for social connection and the blissful calm that comes from becoming a part of something larger than oneself for a precious, fleeting moment.” You don’t have to be a book-lover to understand how fantastic that is, so pick up a book and get reading: It could literally improve your mental health.