We are living in uncertain times. Recent and ongoing crises, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and natural disasters, and increasing geopolitical and economic instability, have arguably led to a growing awareness of our existential precarity. Recent studies suggest that mental health is poor: among the general population, 24.4% experience anxiety and 22.9% suffer from symptoms of depression. These figures rise to an alarming 41.1% and 32.5% respectively in vulnerable populations (Bower et al.). As Maree Teesson, Director of the University of Sydney’s Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use, points out, “what worries me is that rather than having an intense recovery phase [after the pandemic] in Australia we’ve had further crises, including marked increases in costs of living and natural disasters, all of which we know exacerbate mental health problems” (anon.).
How do we not only survive but flourish in such times? As we are coming up against the financial as well as conceptual limitations of biomedically informed approaches to mental health (McDonald and Hollenbach 5), the therapeutic potential of the arts is receiving renewed attention. While art, music, and writing therapy are widely recognised, bibliotherapy, although practiced in clinical as well as many informal settings, is less prominent in our cultural imagination – perhaps because the creativity in the act of reading is less obvious, perhaps because our reading practices tend to bleed into each other: we read for pleasure, distraction, information, guidance, etc., often all at the same time. And yet, research shows that bibliotherapy can make significant contributions to mental health (Monroy-Fraustro et al.). In our article, we explore how the practice of Shared Reading, a form of creative bibliotherapy, can nurture the wellbeing of individuals and communities in our uncertain times.
Neither a book club nor a self-help group, Shared Reading brings a small group of people together to listen to a story and a poem, which are read out by a trained facilitator, who gently guides the conversation to tease out the emotional undercurrents of the text, to reflect on literary characters and their predicaments, and generally use literature as a springboard for broader reflections on life and personal experience. The format combines the benefits of reading with those of being part of a community. The positive effects have been documented in a range of studies: Shared Reading has the capacity to reduce anxiety, alleviate symptoms of depression, increase confidence, and, importantly, create a sense of connectedness and social inclusion in a non-medicalised setting (see Billington Reading; Davis Literature; Dowrick et al.; Pettersson).
While Shared Reading has been extensively researched from the perspective of specific mental health issues, less attention has been paid to how it contributes to an overall sense of flourishing in which a person feels good about their life (emotional wellbeing) and functions well within it (psychological and social wellbeing) – as opposed to subsisting in a state of languishing characterised by feelings of “emptiness”, “stagnation”, and “quiet despair” (Keyes 210), without amounting to actual mental illness (Keyes et al. 2367). The distinction between languishing and mental illness is crucial to avoid conflation of “normal human sadness” (Haslam and DeDeyne n.p.) and “common human sorrows – normality under severe strain” (Billington, Literature 2) – with the pathological psychological states of mental illness. Understanding what makes us flourish is important, not least because Keyes’s findings suggest that flourishing in life may foster resilience and provide a “stress buffer” against challenging life events and transitions (218), while languishing individuals may be more susceptible to mental illness (213). The flourishing individual, it seems, is better placed to make the best of ‘the mingled yarn’ of their life (All’s Well That Ends Well, Act 4, Scene 3).
The workings and effects of Shared Reading can best be captured with current concepts of eudaimonic wellbeing, which expand Aristotle’s notion of human flourishing by integrating the fulfilment of psychological needs (see Huta; Besser-Jones). Aristotle’s idea of eudaimonia is characterised by reason and moderation in aiming for an embodiment of particular virtues or excellences. Ryan, Huta, and Deci update Aristotle’s normative concept of the good life into the mindful, freely chosen pursuit of intrinsic goals, such as personal growth, relationships, and community. A eudaimonic life, they argue, will satisfy basic psychological needs for autonomy, relatedness, and competence. Like Aristotle, they consider pleasure and positive affect as welcome by-products rather than goals in themselves. Besser-Jones concurs:
we have needs to experience competency over our environments and as such to engage in experiences that allow us to exercise our skills; to experience belongingness with others, to both care for others and be cared for by others; to experience autonomy through selecting and pursuing goals with which we identify. When we engage in these activities in an ongoing fashion, we experience eudaimonic well-being. (Besser-Jones 190)
Significantly, the eudaimonic life is one of active reflection and conscious volition (Besser-Jones 187), rather than passive acquiescence to either outside forces or inner drives. Mindfulness is a crucial ingredient, enabling a person to see “what is true” in their inner and outer experience (Ryan, Huta, & Deci 158). Research suggests that the fruits of such a life may include a sense of meaning, enhanced vitality, inner peace, and even physical health (Ryan, Huta, & Deci 161–2).
Shared Reading contributes to eudaimonic wellbeing in several ways. Rather than fostering wellbeing through a cumulation of moments of hedonic pleasure (see Diener), Shared Reading does not provide exclusively pleasurable experiences; instead it creates “a little community ... whose first concern is the serious business of living” (Billington, Literature 132). While this undoubtedly affords moments of heightened positive affect, participants may also experience heightened negative affect. However, engagement with the negative through literature can, in fact, positively contribute to a deepened sense of purpose, meaning, and connection with others (Ryff & Singer 10), and thereby contribute to an improved sense of psychological wellbeing (Billington et al. 267-8; see also Davis et al., Literature 19) as tensions, uncertainties, and memories can be articulated, contextualised and, ultimately, integrated (McNicol 23–40). In that respect Shared Reading resonates with Vittersø’s reflection that “eudaimonic well-being is strange. It contains a kind of complex goodness that is not necessarily associated with pleasure – and it may be valued only after a bit of reflection” (Vittersø 254). As a practice, Shared Reading unfolds its full potential over time in accordance with eudaimonism, which defines wellbeing as “an active state ... that, while experiential, requires agency and ongoing activity” (Besser-Jones 187).
Given the limited scope of this article, we want to focus on just some of the ways in which Shared Reading contributes to eudaimonic wellbeing by offering opportunities for self-growth and greater autonomy through a sense of connectedness, which may lead to a greater sense of overall liveness and a fuller experience of the amplitude of human life. Corcoran and Oatley note that “the interpersonal context in which to think about human challenges and complex, day-to-day human situations” in reading groups is “a luxury that is not typically afforded by pressured, busy and demanding lives, but which is invaluable as an underpinning life resource to enhance sustainable psychological wellbeing” (338). Throughout our exploration, we will draw on surveys and interviews with Shared Reading participants from a pilot study at La Trobe University, in which, together with Senior Lecturer Sara James, we ran five groups for eight weeks in a range of community settings in greater Melbourne. Three of these groups, at Yarra Libraries and the La Trobe University Library as well as the Warrandyte Neighbourhood House, were conducted face-to-face. Two more groups, one with outpatient cancer survivors at Ringwood Hospital and one with La Trobe University alumni, were held on Zoom. The study consisted of 27 participants – 20 female, 6 male, and one non-binary – ranging from young adulthood to elderly. All participants self-selected to join after advertising campaigns in conjunction with our partner institutions; participation in the research component of the project was entirely voluntary. All participants, whose statements we quote, have been de-identified. The positive effects on both a sense of personal autonomy and social connection are reflected in our research findings: 92.5% of the participants found they had grown more confident since joining the group. 92.6% of the participants reported that the groups helped them understand themselves better, while 77.7% found the sessions helped them relate to others in a deeper way.
In Shared Reading the connection between reader and text expands into connections formed within the group. Recognising aspects of one’s own life in a story is powerful in “confirming that I am not entirely alone, that there are others who think or feel like me. Through this experience of affiliation, I feel myself acknowledged; I am rescued from the fear of invisibility, from the terror of not being seen” (Felski 54). In this way, even solitary reading has the capacity to normalise a broad range of individual experiences and to stave off loneliness. We find friends in books. In Shared Reading this moment of connection is intensified and multiplied by also offering recognition from others – groups bond quickly. Beth, a shy participant who struggles with anxiety, found “it was really, really special to find a way to really honestly understand someone else without judgement, which is hard to do”. She reported that the sessions had increased her confidence because she “felt seen” within the group. A number of participants commented on the depth and quality of the conversations and found the groups “nourishing” or “nurturing”. By focussing on the text, meaningful and even personal conversations spring up that are not easily had in other contexts.
Such rich and intimate encounters with the text and others are predicated on the practice of joint “close” or “deep” reading. By immersing oneself in the text, the borders between self and text become porous. In “bringing the work into existence as an imaginary space within oneself” (Miller 38), we allow the text to “get under our skin” in an act of “compenetration” (Rosenblatt 12). This process holds significant transformative potential, as Radway notes: when reading, “‘I’ become something other than what I have been and inhabit thoughts other than those I have been able to conceive before” (13). Billington credits reading as a unique form of thinking in its own right (Literature 115–37). Thinking with the text collaboratively can deepen into self-reflection through our internal and external conversations with the voices of others (Archer 458–472). Self-reflexivity becomes a relational process in which individuals experiment with new modes of selfhood and ways of relating to others (Holmes 139–41). This resonates with research into Shared Reading, which suggests an “impact upon psychological wellbeing by improving a sense of personal growth through increased self-development” (Davis et al., Values 7). In fact, one of the strongest themes to emerge from the post-program interviews was how strongly participants appreciated the broadening of inner horizons through the group conversations. Reading itself offers “a literary rendering of how worlds create selves, but also of how selves perceive and react to worlds made up of other selves” (Felski 132). It involves exercising the imagination; it is the practice of “going out from one’s self toward other lives” and stimulates “sympathy, fellowship, spirituality and [the] morality of being human” (Donoghue 73; see also Charon). Shared Reading fosters self-growth as a relational activity, as group participant Ian describes:
[Shared Reading] will open up a world to your own feelings and views ... and expand that beyond your expectations ... . As a group you have that cross-fertilisation of emotions, feelings, experiences. ... It is amazing what it will do for your own mental wellbeing, your own intellectual stimulation, and your sense of engagement with your fellow human being.
Ian’s statement captures something integral to Shared Reading and to eudaimonic flourishing: a sense of “liveness” and vibrancy. Participants experience the literature freshly during the session, without preparation – indeed without warning – as to what will be encountered (Davis, Reading 4). Participant Anna notes: “you really have to be in the moment, present to the text”. Nina likens this quality of attention to that of “meditating and connecting at the same time”, which resonates with the mindfulness of a eudaimonic life (Ryan, Huta, & Deci 158). Literature can enliven us by disrupting habitual patterns of response, defences, pat attitudes and opinions; it nudges us, so to speak, out of the “insidiously lazy default language” (Davis, Reader 3) of familiar, well-worn conceptual and linguistic paths into unexplored territory.
The reader may be caught off guard when a story abruptly triggers an emotion, a memory, or some other element of inner experience (Billington, Literature 91–93), which then emerges, often haltingly, into the light of conscious thought. Such ambushing is recognised by both facilitators and researchers when a participant’s normal fluency falters or breaks down into a “creative inarticulacy” (Davis et al. 11–14) as they actively, arduously attempt to express what the literature has summoned (Billington, Literature 91–2). Such linguistic groping signals the emergence of fresh insight; it is personal growth in action. Anna relates how Sharma Shields’s story “The Mcgugle Account” exhumed a long-buried memory: “it really disturbed me a lot. And it was not until a week or so later that I recognised what it was … that it summoned up in me, a memory of something that had happened … [that] I’d always felt a lot of shame about. And I’ve never, I’ve never really shared it with anybody”. She continues, “and it was so good to talk about it and process something I’ve not been able to [indistinct] for 30 years”. Anna experiences a moment of “recovery” or “awakening” (Billington, Literature 88) as a “second chance” (Davis, Reading 14) to return to an experience and reframe, maybe even redeem it. Davis notes that
literature widens and enriches the human norm [by] accepting and allowing for trauma, troubles, inadequacies, and other experiences usually classed as negative or even pathological. It is a process of recovery – in the deeper sense of spontaneously retrieving for use experiences and qualities that were lost, regretted or made redundant. (Davis et al. Values, 33)
Similarly, Beth describes what happened when another participant recalled an argument with his ex-wife:
we all laughed, really, which is quite a tender moment and it’s really a vulnerable expression of something that was potentially really painful in someone’s past. But for some reason we all laughed, and it was fine. He was happy with us laughing too …. . I can’t remember many, many moments like that where we just – yeah , collectively kind of laughed about this. This life. Yeah.
The laughter shared during such moments expresses relief, reassurance that we are not alone in the painful experiences of “this life”. These are moments of connection and of re-storying or recuperating a painful past.
The sense of vitality is often palpable, manifesting sometimes as an alert stillness – a taut “leaning in” (Davis et al., Value 9) to what’s being read –, at others as an eruption into laughter as we have seen. In its embrace of the full spectrum of human experience it is “as though literature itself said implicitly ‘Nothing human is alien to me’” (Billington, Literature 3). Within this capacious, generous space, participants can grow into a more expansive self-awareness. Beth explains:
I find it hard to understand what I’m feeling sometimes and articulate that, and through the stories and through the group and through the process, I found that easier. Which was such a surprise to me. Because that wasn’t what I thought would happen. … I can’t quite place what it is about the experience that had that catalyst for me … . And there was something in each of the stories that was really relatable, and I found that it just drew something out of me that I wasn’t expecting then.
“Alive”, “enriched”, and “stimulated” are some of the participants’ descriptors for how they feel in Shared Reading sessions. As with any practice, these feelings deepen and spread into other areas of life over time. Tom, who describes “reading as a way of life”, explains its power: “to be an appreciator of the text is a practice in itself without being a writer of text or a critic. … And the more I appreciate, the better my life becomes”. After the program, Beth reported that she started exploring the library in more detail, and one of the groups started meeting at the pub to share reading tips, discuss “ideas”, and catch up.
As has perhaps become clear, in Shared Reading the individual aspects of a eudaimonic life work together synergistically to promote a sense of eudaimonic wellbeing. The attentive and sincere engagement with literature and its representations of human complexity facilitates connection and reflection that may inspire self-growth and an overall sense of vitality. In the practice of reading together these aspects remain entangled and interdependent, reinforcing each other over time into a sense of eudaimonic wellbeing that can accommodate pain or negative affect and potentially transform them into something meaningful. The process of restoration, of unfolding, articulating, and reintegrating what was submerged, considered lost, or pushed aside is never linear, often surprising, and never complete, just as expressions of eudaimonic flourishing are unique to each individual and bear all the complexity of human experience.
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