Review: Literature and Happiness

The article reviewed here is ‘Literature and Happiness’ by Norman Holland and published in the journal Psyart in 2007. Psyart publishes articles which examine psychological perspectives on the arts. In the abstract (headnote), Holland writes that

I maintain that we do literature because it is fun, because it makes us happy. And it makes us happy because the act of experiencing literature mimcs the brain processes of successful living

I was intrigued to read a little more to see what Holland meant by this. He begins by looking at the origins of the word happiness and an overlap with terms such as luck in indoeuropean languages. He then describes a modern meaning in which the pursuit of happiness is validated in a western society. Indeed this features in the positive psychology movement (see review here). He writes about reading for pleasure and as a literary critic and then discusses psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s description of happiness in flow – equivalent to absorption in a task. He then equates the first type of reading – the reading for pleasure with the activation of a wanting and liking system – the neurological correlates of which are the mesocortical and mesolimbic systems. He refers to a Seeking model described elsewhere with regards to the wanting and liking systems. This is where he draws the analogy with ‘successful living’ as he suggests that the cycle of wanting and liking are routine and exclusive drivers of our behaviours. With regards to literary criticism he relates this to activity within the peri-aqueductal grey matter (PAG). The connection he makes is with a theory of ‘personal style’ described elsewhere in which the PAG plays a prominent role.

In terms of other articles reviewed previously this has a different tone far removed from papers describing studies with quantitative and qualitative methodologies. The article is essentially an essay in which a structured hypothesis is described. There are various methodologies that could be used to explore this model in further detail ranging from focus groups through to surveys and imaging studies. Nevertheless this ‘top-level’ informal-at-times discussion is just as valid as rigorous qualitative or quantitative studies in that it disseminates a speculative model which can lead to further discussion. There are many reasons for reading and many functions that it may satisfy as well as numerous brain regions or systems that may be involved in the process quite apart from the PAG, mesolimbic and mesocortical systems although each should start with a suitable evidence to justify their inclusion in the model. Is my peri-aqueductal grey matter helping ‘me’ to write this review? I’m not entirely sure, but until I’d read this paper I wouldn’t have entered my stream of consciousness. There at least it has already had some success.


Holland N. Literature and Happiness. Psyart. Gainesville. 2007. I page. ISSN: 10885870.


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