Nicola Morgan

Author, Speaker, Supporter

Understanding and Supporting Your Teenagers – few spaces left and I’m not doing it again!

What is readaxation?

Benefits of reading and readaxationI coined the word readaxation a couple of years ago and a lot of people are asking to know more about it. What is it and what’s the point and is it any different from reading for pleasure? I did a couple of talks on it recently and will be talking about it in fuller detail (with science!) this weekend at the School Library Association conference.

When someone asked me for more info about it today, I realised that it’s all very well to speak about it at librarians’ conferences – I need to explain it here.

What is readaxation?

It means “reading to relax” but there is more to it than that. It’s very similar to the idea of reading for pleasure but in my view reading for pleasure isn’t enough and risks being a bit woolly. Readaxation goes further and makes more claims.

My working definition: “Readaxation is the act of reading for pleasure as a deliberate strategy for relaxing stress levels. It acknowledges that relaxation is not a luxury but an essential part of physical and mental wellbeing and health. Readaxation crucially includes the act of achieving “flow” or “engagement“, which has positive consequences for reducing stress levels and improving wellbeing.”

(“Flow” or “engagement” describe that sense of being so engrossed in an activity that you don’t notice what’s going on around you. You are transported into (in this case) the act of reading and the world you are reading about. Many experts believe that having sufficient periods of engagement in your day/week/life is very important to wellbeing. So do I.)

I try to answer three questions:

  1. What are or what are likely to be the benefits of pleasure reading to wellbeing?
  2. Does it make a difference what we read?
  3. How can we make it happen?

What are or what are likely to be the benefits to wellbeing?

Here I talk about the following benefits, highlighting the research where it exists and providing arguments and justification where it doesn’t. And note that I’m very careful to analyse any research properly – some of it is stronger than others.

I’ve listed some benefits below, specifically expressed here in terms that might appeal to young people, because my audience is school librarians and because you’ll find that relevant later in this post.

  1. Helps you get to sleep
  2. Helps you understand other people better
  3. Helps you face and understand difficult times
  4. Helps you know more about the world – including facts
  5. Improves imagination/creativity
  6. Exercises lots of areas of the brain
  7. Helps you succeed better at school
  8. Increases vocabulary
  9. Improves confidence and self-esteem
  10. Lets you switch off from worries
  11. You feel less stressed

The evidence that it reduces stress (in the sense of measurable stress responses such as heart rate or cortisol levels) is flimsy but that’s mainly because it’s difficult to measure the bodily responses of someone who is supposed to be fully engaged in a book, because it’s difficult to be fully engaged in a book if someone is taking your blood pressure/heart rate or sticking a needle in you! But I then present arguments as to why it’s very reasonable to say that being buried in a book you’re enjoying would be likely to reduce stress:

  • Readers say so – and questionnaire-based research, if done properly, is perfectly valid
  • It’s an activity that allows “flow” (see above)
  • When you are fully engaged in a book, you can’t simultaneously be worrying about whatever stress you’re under so, for that time at least, you are switched off and not repeating your negative thoughts – there’s a CBT effect there
  • Bibliotherapy – this concept has a long history and a great deal of research to support it, both for clinical and developmental bibliotherapy.

Does it matter what you read?

No, but yes.

The central tenet of readaxation is that it has to induce pleasure so it must be any book you want to read because you will enjoy it, not for any other reason. So, in that sense, it doesn’t otherwise matter what it is and every type of reading is as valuable as any other type, as long as it’s a book you can become fully engaged with, achieving “flow”.

But every choice we make makes a difference to us. Different types of reading engage slightly different areas of the brain and if we spend a lot of time on one particular type of reading we will make physical changes to our brain, inevitably. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (in fact, it might sometimes be good, depending) but it is worth knowing about.

So, I discuss the evidence for differences between the following choices:

  1. Simple and complex texts
  2. Digital and print – looking separately at digital online and digital ebooks
  3. Fiction and non-fiction

In the context of readaxation, the only relevant differences are in the extent to which we can fully engage with a particular text but I find it impossible not to look at other differences, too! Especially the digital/print and fic/non-fic ones. Fascinating! (I’m not going into the details here as it’s only tangentially relating to readaxation. Remember, readaxation is about achieving engagement and different readers can do that with different texts: for example, I personally can’t with an ereader but some people can. The research consistently shows slight average deficits in comprehension and recall when readers read digitally…)

One point on the fiction/non-fiction topic: although I respect the substantial research suggesting that fiction has an extra power over non-fiction in terms of developing empathy, I would question the research in one important respect. When researchers have created a “non-fictionalised” version of a piece of fiction (which they need to do in order to make a proper comparison of effect) have they (and how have they) made sure that the writing quality of the non-fiction version is good enough to allow a proper comparison with the fiction?

Non-fiction writing quality varies enormously and you can’t validly compare poorly written non-fiction with well-written fiction. Also, non-fiction can contain narrative elements, which could feasibly give it the same empathy function as is claimed for fiction.

So, while I absolutely buy into the importance of character and narrative for allowing narrative transportation and empathy, I don’t accept that only fiction can contain those elements. But if we believe in the importance of character and story for engagement and narrative transportation, we have to look carefully at the range of non-fiction that we offer.

How can we make it happen?

So, if we agree that readaxation has a potential benefit to wellbeing, how can we make it happen?

In my talks, I focus on Victor Nells motivational flowchart. According to this, we need three antecedents in order for someone to try reading for pleasure:

  • Adequate reading skills – “adequate” meaning “adequate for the book choices being offered” (in other words, a 6yo can have adequate reading skills for reading a book for that age group)
  • Correct book choice – “correct” simply meaning “a book this person could love”
  • Expectation of benefit

And it’s that third one that we’re ignoring. We’re expecting people to read for pleasure because we say reading for pleasure is A Good Thing. This is where the phrase “reading for pleasure” falls down and isn’t strong enough. There are two reasons that’s unhelpful:

  1. “Pleasure” has negative connotations – “guilty pleasure”. We tend to think pleasure is self-indulgence, that we should only have it at weekends or holidays, that we have to “deserve” it and that if we’re busy (as we all think we ought to be, especially Type A people such as me) we can’t afford pleasure.
  2. Calling something A Good Thing doesn’t work as a motivational tool for most people, especially young people. It treats reading like spinach, something we should have because it’s good for us.

We know it’s good for us but what most of us (especially a) young people and b) people who don’t already think they love reading) need to know is that it will make us feel good. Most people need to know what the benefits might be and then they need to experience those benefits. Then they will read more.

Different people will be drawn to different benefits. (This is where my earlier list comes in.) Some children love the idea that if they read they will know things; others love the idea that they will understand their friends better and have better friendships; or that they will feel more confident; others love the idea that reading will help them relax and switch off from their worries.

So,  they need first to know what the benefits might be and then to experience them. And that is facilitated by discussion. “Which of these benefits might you like and then which of them did you notice?” School librarians have huge power in this discussion. They also have huge power in the second part of Nell’s requirements: the correct choice.

In fact, it is usually ONLY SCHOOL LIBRARIANS who can do this. And this is where I get very ranty. If we want children to love reading enough to do it in their own time, we CANNOT underfund school librarians. We CANNOT create a nation of readers if we do not have a properly trained librarian in every secondary school. ONLY school librarians are greedy enough in their reading and knowledgeable enough in their understanding of both keen readers and reluctant readers to be able to offer the “correct choice” of books. ONLY libraries free at the point of use can provide the necessary deluge of books to feed the emerging reader and allow unguilty pleasure reading.

Without properly funded school libraries with properly funded school librarians, reading for pleasure and readaxation become truly luxuries: accessible only by the fortunate.

Relaxation is not a luxury: it’s essential for health. And readaxation is a perfect way towards that relaxation.

Mind you, it comes with a warning:


And with better wellbeing.


8 Responses

  1. I love the term ‘readaxation’ and that finding time to read should not be regarded as a ‘guilty pleasure’ but essential for all the benefits explained in Nicola’s excellent article. Exercising the brain is as important as exercising the body.

    1. Thanks, Rosalyn. I think there are really good parallels with physical exercise. When we exercise (ie use and stretch) our body, our body reacts positively afterwards by feeling and working better and I think the same effects happens when we exercise the brain. Also, both exercise and reading can be activities that create “flow”.

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  3. This is an Exceptional Work. I believe there are numerous parallels with physical activity.
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