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Want to Feel Happier? Read Something for Fun

Go out and get hold of a book you want to read.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you should have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join inno need to catch up, just jump in right now.

This week: Read something for fun!

I’ve noticed something when I ask people what they’re reading: they often name some highly estimable, dense, serious book, and then confess that they’ve been reading it for months.

I pressed one friend to explain his reading habits. “I just don’t have the time to read,” he said.

“Well, your books sound a bit dry,” I said. “Why don’t you read something more enjoyable?”

“When I read, I want to learn something,” he said virtuously. “I don’t want to waste my time with something that’s not worthwhile.”

“But you watch a lot of trashy TV,” I pointed out. I happened to know that he was a fan of reality TV. “You don’t force yourself to watch nothing but documentaries when you’re watching TV, why shouldn’t you read something more fun?”

He didn’t really answer me. But I think this exchange highlights a problem with the way a lot of people approach reading.

In general, reading is supposed to be fun! Go out and get hold of a book you want to read.

If you find yourself saying things like, “I really ought to read this,” or “I’ll be glad that I read this,” or “This is an important book,” maybe you don’t really want to read that book.

Sometimes, of course, we all need to read books that we aren’t particularly interested in—say, for work. I’m lucky in that way, because the way I choose my work subject is by asking myself, “What’s a subject about which I’d like to read 500 books?” And then I read 500 books and write my own book on that subject. Now, not everyone call pull that off. And it's good to push yourself to read an ambitious book.

But along with the books I read for work, following my resolution to “read better” and “read at whim,” I let myself read books just because I feel like it. I read a lot of children’s literature (and I'm in three children's literature reading groups, so I have a reason to read even more). I re-read a lot of books—this weekend, I re-read Lytton Strachey's Queen Victoria. I read a lot of odd books that no one has ever heard of. I read a lot, generally. But if I try to make myself read something that I don’t really feel like reading, my reading drops off considerably. I just don’t find the time for it. But when I’m reading something good, I find the time.

Samuel Johnson observed, “A man should read whatever his immediate inclination prompts him to; though, to be sure, if a man has a science to learn, he must regularly and resolutely advance.” He added, “What we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.”

Science backs this up. When researchers tried to figure out what helped third- and fourth-graders remember what they read, they found that the students’ interest in the passage was far more important than the “readability” of the passage—30 times more important.

When you have the right book, nothing is more fun than reading. So go to a bookstore or a library or online and get something you want to read. The test? You should feel like going straight home and sitting down to read it, immediately.

Don’t judge yourself. Let yourself read what you want. Remember, it’s supposed to be fun. And it is fun, nothing is more fun, if you’re reading something you enjoy.

What was the last book you read, for fun? I just finished reading an interesting book about English follies (the garden buildings, not policy mistakes).