Books and Meaningful Activities Lead to Happy Lives

As a lifelong bibliophile and culture aficionado, I didn’t need any scientific verification that reading, listening to music, visiting art galleries, and engaging in other forms of cultural immersion were good for my heart and soul. Of course, it never hurts to have some sort of research back these things up, so I was pleased, if not unsurprising, with the following report from NPR:

Going to the library gives people the same kick as getting a raise does — a £1,359 ($ 2,282) raise, to be exact — according to a study commissioned by the U.K.’s Department for Culture, Media & Sport. The study, which looks at the ways “cultural engagement” affects overall well-being, concluded that a significant association was found between frequent library use and reported well-being. The same was true of dancing, swimming and going to plays. The study notes that “causal direction needs to be considered further” — that is, it’s hard to tell whether happy people go to the library, or going to the library makes people happy. But either way, the immortal words of Arthur the Aardvark ring true: “Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a library card!”

Well, this certainly explains why I legitimately get happy when I go to a library or bookstore, or even when I’m in my room surrounded by my books. I could never explain how or why I’d be happy exactly; I would just feel an ineffable and natural sense of calm and contentment, as if I were engaging in something therapeutic — which indeed, seems to be what these activities are. I feel a similar sensation when I’m gardening, tidying up my living space, or going to a local culture festival. 

This finding sort of coincides with another study I came across recently that came to a similar conclusion: people who regularly engage in meaningful activities — ranging from exercise and sports to gardening and art — tend to feel better in the long run, especially if they’re helping people along the way.

For the study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers followed a group of 39 teenagers over the course of one year to see whether the way their brains reacted to either eudaimonic or hedonic rewards correlated with how depressed they felt over time.

First, the subjects underwent an fMRI while making a decision about whether to keep money for themselves (a hedonic reward) or to donate it to their families (eudaimonic). They also played a game to determine if they were willing to take risks for the possibility of a greater financial reward (hedonic).

The subjects then filled out a self-report questionnaire of depressive symptoms during the initial scan, and again a year later.

It turned out the teens who had the greatest brain response to the generous, family-donation financial decision had the greatest declines in depressive symptoms over time. And those who got a boost from the risk-taking game were more likely to have an increase in depression. The types of rewards the teens responded to, it seems, changed their behavior in ways that altered their overall well-being.

“For example,” the authors write, “adolescents who show heightened activation in the ventral striatum during eudaimonic decisions likely experience a sense of reward from supporting their family and may therefore show increases in the time they spend helping their family.”

It’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily mean parents can inoculate their teens against depression by forcing them to seek happiness through volunteering. But it could be that teens who already do that kind of thing because it really does lift their spirits are likely to have that lift stick with them.

“Taken together, our findings suggest that well-being may depend on attending to higher values related to family, culture, and morality, rather than to immediate, selfish pleasure,” the authors write.

Taken together, these findings — which coincide with plenty of anecdotal and philosophical observations as well — make clear that doing something meaningful and stimulating is beneficial to mental health. That may seem somewhat obvious, but it’s easy to underestimate how seemingly mundane activities and tasks could help enrich our lives to some degree or another. While results may vary, and such things are far from substitutes for psychiatric care, it never hurts to explore the world around us and find interests and activities that could make us feel better. 

 

 

 

The Niceties of Life

Arguably, life is all about experience. When it comes down to it, we live to enjoy the act of living itself – albeit insofar as we don’t interfere with other’s right to do so too. If we’re going to have this fragile, finite, and – as far as we can know for certain – singular existence, we might as well make the most of it and work with what we got.

Our ability to derive pleasure from a wide-range of things is perhaps the greatest asset of our lives. Without our feelings, senses, and higher-brain function, we’d be no better than automatons: existing solely to consume, sleep, and breed; existing only to keep on existing.

Granted, that’s what our role as organisms boils down to. Strip away all of civilization – all the various ideas, belief systems, and inventions with which we embellish our time on this world – and all we’re left with are animals driven by nothing more than the natural instinct to survive long enough to make new life. And so on and so forth.

Therein lays the value of our cognitive abilities. We make our very own purpose in life. We create or embrace the stimuli that make us feel good in any number of ways. We find the conflicts, challenges, and unknowns that drive us to think, explore, and invent. The world is full of things to enjoy – music, dance, cuisine, art, games, friends, books, sleep, etc. We all have different tastes and drivers, but what matters is that we have something, anything, to keep us going, and to give our lives meaning.

In the end, we all just want to validate ourselves. Some do it through transcendental religion, others through secular causes, and still others through the indulgence of sensory pleasure – from casual materialism, to outright hedonism. I don’t think we should be opposed to material wealth or pleasure for its own sake, so long as such things are done in moderation. Otherwise, too much of it can be self-destructive, or cheapen the joy and excitement we encounter when we first feel its effects.

Speaking for myself, I take the middle path in all this. I’m not religious, so I make humanism – a concern for the well-being of other creatures – my transcendent belief system. I want to enrich my experiences, and take in as much of this world as I can. There are few moments as pleasurable as when we first make a new friend, encounter a new love, listen to a good song, explore an unknown place, and savor a new taste or aroma.

Few people in the world have the opportunity to enjoy all these things as I do. I must make the most of my good fortune, and use my time on this Earth to make sure as many other fellow human beings can do the same too.

What about you? What keeps you going in this world? What moments or memories do you have to comfort you? What meaning have you given to your own existence?