Effect of reading on daily stress and negative mood: a daily diary study

:speech_balloon: Speaker: Beatrice Ellen Schofield
:classical_building: Affiliation: Radboud University Nijmegen, Centre for Language Studies, and Free University Berlin, Department of Experimental and Neurocognitive Psychology
Title: Effect of reading on daily stress and negative mood: a daily diary study

Abstract (long version below): Reading has been associated with improved wellbeing. However, few studies have directly compared leisure activities, leaving unclear whether reading provides unique benefits. We thus compared effects of reading and completing puzzles on wellbeing measures. 90 participants alternated between reading and puzzling over eight days and reported daily stress levels and negative mood. Participation was associated with decreased stress at the end compared with the beginning of the intervention. However, no significant difference between reading and puzzling effects on stress or mood was found, suggesting regular leisure time may improve wellbeing, but reading may not outperform other activities for this purpose.

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:newspaper: Long abstract

Studies across different disciplines suggest that reading books is associated with improved mood and cognitive wellbeing, with theories suggesting reading induces unique forms of cognitive and emotional engagement through simulating social situations and providing insight into character motivations (Mar and Oatley, 2008). Recreational reading by students has been associated with a reduction in psychological stress levels (Levine et al., 2020) while group reading by clinical groups is associated with improvement in depression symptoms (Dowrick et al., 2012; Smith et al., 1997). However, few studies have directly compared these reading experiences to other similar leisure activities. Comparison of doing yoga, reading factual articles and watching a comedy video found that while all activities reduced physiological markers of stress, there was no significant difference between the effects of each activity, though notably this study did not address fiction reading (Rizzolo et al., 2009). Meanwhile, studies in older adults have associated reading, but also a variety of other non-screen-based leisure activities with both higher life satisfaction and better cognitive function (Adams-Price et al., 2018; Hughes et al., 2010; Chang et al., 2021). Thus, while reading may provide some protection against stress and cognitive decline, it remains unclear whether these are unique to reading above and beyond engaging with leisure activities.


As such, we aimed to investigate the effects of reading compared to completing puzzles on measures of wellbeing, specifically levels of perceived stress and negative mood. We chose completing puzzles (e.g. crossword, sudoku, wordsearch) as a control condition since it is a sedentary, often solitary, but cognitively-engaging activity, like reading is. Given that the majority of reading and leisure occurs at home or in the environment of an individual’s choosing, and that individual differences in both literariness and stress reception have previously been shown to affect study outcomes (Cohen et al., 1983; Koopman, 2015; Mak and Willems, 2018), we also wanted to investigate these effects in a more naturalistic paradigm, by employing a daily-diary design and allowing participants both to choose books and puzzles which they used. 90 participants (80% women) alternated between reading and puzzling over a period of eight days (counterbalanced across participants) and reported perceived stress levels and negative mood daily, as well as completing the Perceived Stress Scale (Cohen et al., 1983) to measure baseline stress and the Dutch Author Recognition Test (ART) to measure literariness (Brysbaert et al., 2020).

Results and discussion

A minority of participants (10%) reported reading daily; however, most of the group found reading to be either an enjoyable (38.89%) or very enjoyable (36.67%) experience. Taking part in the intervention overall was associated with decreased levels of stress at the end compared with the beginning of the intervention (t(89) = 2.16, p = 0.034). However, no significant difference in stress levels or negative mood associated with reading, compared to puzzling, was found, and these were not moderated by ART score, reading frequency, or attitude towards reading (all p > 0.070). We argue these results complement the existing (but rare) literature directly comparing different leisure activities to one another for their effects on measures of wellbeing, by suggesting that regularly taking time for leisure activities – including reading - may improve stress levels and wellbeing, but that reading itself may not be better than other activities at reducing stress levels (e.g. Adams-Price et al., 2018; Jin, 1992; Rizzolo et al., 2009). Additionally, the current method of study allowed dense within-subject data collection and acknowledgement of participant preferences and abilities to form a more natural approximation of how leisure activities are carried out in daily life, indicating a promising future avenue for future research and intervention studies into the effects of leisure activities on measures of wellbeing.