The Harry Potter franchise has been a force of nature in the literary and media worlds since the first book was published in 1997. And the magical universe crafted by author J.K. Rowling has resonated so strongly with fans that, even when there was a nine year gap between the publishing of the seventh and eighth books, they kept the franchise alive through conventions, fan stories, forums, etc.
During the franchise’s 19 year reign, the way we interact with books has also been changing (thanks to the emergence of e-books and e-readers), calling into question the role that reading plays in our lives. But when you take a closer look at the Harry Potter ecosystem, you can see that the books and their cultural impact actually serve as a model for the importance of sitting down with a good book.
A few weeks ago people were lining around bookstores all over the world, awaiting the debut of the eighth book in the series – Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – which re imagines the characters of the Harry Potter series as parents raising their own magical children. And chances are that if you followed the people that were lining up for the new book over the next few decades, you’d find that they’d live longer than the average person. At least, that’s what a study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine discovered. Their research found that people that are avid book readers tend to live almost two years longer than those that don’t read often. Here’s a detailed overview of the study’s findings by the Guardian.
Studies like this remind us that being healthy is more than just exercising and eating well. Even the simplest leisure activities can increase your well-being dramatically. Keeping this in mind, there are even more reasons why Harry Potter fans, in particular, might live longer than the rest of us.
Fiction affects your brain differently
A key part of the aforementioned study was a link between the genre participants read and the health benefits they experienced.
“We found that reading books provided a greater benefit than reading newspapers or magazines. We uncovered that this effect is likely because books engage the reader’s mind more – providing more cognitive benefit, and therefore increasing the lifespan,” said Avni Bavishi, one of the study’s researchers.
This is confirmed by an Emory study that came out a few years ago, which found that reading fiction heightened the connections made in the left temporal cortex – an area of the brain that is associated with receptivity for language.
(Reading improves the brain connections in red. Source: Psychology Today.)
Since reading fiction asks us to be immersed in another person’s world while being exposed to their inner thoughts, motivation, and perspective, it also has a hand in improving our ability to understand that people have beliefs, views, desires, and intentions that are different from our own. In cognitive research circles, this is also referred to as Theory of Mind.
It’s similar to how the simple act of visualizing lifting weights can actually make you stronger. When you’re reading fiction, you’re imagining these intricate worlds, which is a great mental exercise for your brain while improving your ability to empathize. Yes, it’s all in your head, but the parts of the brain it ignites are real and, therefore, have tangible effects.
This explains why superfans (also known as stans, fangirls, and fanboys) feel such intense emotional connections to fictional characters.
Even if you’re not a superfan, many people can relate to the high emotions experienced during a particularly engrossing book. And if you’re really into a book or a series, you might start talking to fellow fans online in various forums and on social media sites. And, then, maybe you’ll decide to meet up as an outlet for your deep love of your favorite book series.
Congregating with fellow fans over a common interest is called being a part of a fandom, and is commonly associated with so-called nerdy interests (Those in the Star Trek fandom are referred to as “Trekkies”. Harry Potter fans are known as “Potterheads”.). But it’s an umbrella term that encompasses any collective of fans, whether their common interest is a book, TV show, a celebrity, or a sport. And fandom is big business, with Comic Con being the largest example of the social and financial gains that can occur when fans come together. (Harry Potter conventions take place all over the world.)
If you’re not a part of a fandom, then it might be hard to understand why people would pay money to dress up in funny costumes just so they can meet other people in funny costumes. But, it turns out that fandom has its own health benefits.
Fandom is a great connector
Being a part of a fandom makes people feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves, giving them a strong sense of community. Feeling like you have an identity and are involved and accepted by a larger group lay the foundation for good mental and physical health. Research shows that the lack of social ties can make you physically sicker and more prone to depression and anxiety.
Connecting with others is often easier said than done, though. Fandom takes the grunt work out of building meaningful relationships by providing the infrastructure – conventions, book launches, online discussions, etc., – that allow people to find social refuge in a collective.
Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to read Harry Potter. But maybe if my parents knew the unique health benefits that being a Harry Potter fan could’ve given me – increased brain function, a longer life, and a sense of community – they would’ve changed their minds.
Of course, reading a fictional book and being a part of a community are things you can do without being a Potterhead, while still reaping the health benefits. But it’s the intersection of reading something as engrossing and complex as the Harry Potter books while interacting with its global reach and pervasive presence in culture (which is worth billions of dollars) that’s so fascinating. There really is no other literary franchise that encompasses these elements at such a high level. Who knew that J.K. Rowling would (unintentionally) create a culture that improves the health of people all over the world?
But, at the very least, the books and all of this research shows us that getting lost in a good book and discussing it with friends are not a waste of time. And, in fact, engaging in those activities might just help keep us alive a little bit longer while improving the quality of those extra years gained.