Reading challenges are pervasive on the internet. It feels like every time I open social media or Goodreads, there’s a new challenge starting. Heck, Book Riot has a challenge we do every year called Read Harder, where 24 different reading tasks are supposed to be done in a year. The tasks run the gamut from reading a cookbook to reading about a trans character written by a trans author to reading a book from the Ignyte awards list. This challenge has been running for nearly a decade. You can find previous Read Harder challenge lists here.
This begs the question, now more than ever, what are reading challenges doing to our mental health? With the economy acting the way it is, people hustling more than ever to make ends meet, and the nonstop demands on our time, is joining a reading challenge really a good idea?
The answer is: it might be. Just like everything in life, it’s more nuanced than it first appears. Yes, challenges can add stress to your life, but they can also jumpstart your reading after a slump. They might become a chore, but they can be a great place to find community. Let’s make a pro-con list to figure it out.
The Downsides to Reading Challenges
Stress and Anxiety
Challenges are inherently oppositional. They come with stress built in. If there weren’t anything difficult or stressful about it, then it wouldn’t be a challenge. Not all stress is bad, however. When not experienced in excess, stress can help to motivate, enhance performance, and focus your energy. Challenges can easily tip from good stress to bad when we let them distress us. The distress, in turn, can lead to negative anxiety. Both stress and anxiety have detrimental effects not only on our mental health but our physical health as well.
How do reading challenges, which start as a positive stress motivator, turn into something that is harmful to our minds and bodies? Jealousy. We’ve all heard Teddy Roosevelt’s famous aphorism, “Comparison is the thief of joy” — the thing about aphorisms and cliches is that they usually have become so well known because there is truth to them.
Many reading websites with trackers, such as Goodreads or TheStoryGraph, have a social aspect to them. While that aspect can create community, it also makes seeing who has read more than us easily accessible. Yes, we want to cheer on our friend who just completed their 100th book, but we also want to have read a 100th book of our own. Something created for good easily turns into something that makes us feel bad about ourselves. It leaves us questioning what’s wrong with us. Why can I be more disciplined and productive? I have the same amount of time in a day that my friend has, yet they’ve read more than me. Cue the unhealthy stress and anxiety.
Reading Becomes a Chore
Now that this reading challenge is in full swing, and we can see how much others are reading, we pressure ourselves to “catch up” with our reading. Between hustle culture and the general economic state of the world, people have more work than ever. Our hobbies shouldn’t also become work for us. Hustle culture has a negative impact on mental health by adding stress, anxiety, exhaustion, and fatigue. It becomes yet another task on our ever-growing to-do list. When it becomes a chore, reading can easily contribute to burnout, which has a negative effect on our mental health. Burnout results in depression, irritability, a decrease in empathy, mental and emotional exhaustion, and cynicism.
Reading Is No Longer a Joy
Books become numbers. Or those little boxes next to tasks that are so satisfying to tick off. You might choose a shorter book that you’re not excited about or particularly happy to read in order to meet your goal. Competition is known to shift perspectives from focusing on your own goal to trying to sabotage or cheat others.
Often, the challenge has set guidelines for the kinds of books the participant is allowed to read. This robs us of choice and autonomy over our reading choices. Lack of autonomy leads to stress, depression, and anger. Control is such an illusion; I’m reminded daily when I listen to the news or chronic pain flares up. There’s precious little I can actually control, but which books I read can be one of them. Focusing only on challenges can make you miss out on what you really want to read because you’re focusing on what you should be reading instead.
Challenges can be a way for people to make themselves feel superior. When you’re a member of an elite group, a small group of readers who read hundreds of books a year, for example, it’s possible to feel like you’re better than other readers. Of course, people are going to take pride in their accomplishments, as they should, but not at the cost of making others feel inferior. Any book read is a good thing! This elitism can make other readers experience imposter syndrome, which is a source of anxiety. More than that, they might not even want to call themselves readers if they don’t get to a certain number of books. Reading 30 books a year feels like a huge accomplishment until you see that your friends have read 100 or 300. Plus, feeling like an outsider causes anxiety, too.
The Benefits of Reading Challenges
Reading challenges are a good way to find like-minded people. Readers make great community members. We’re critical thinkers who want to nerd out over what we just finished reading. We’re enthusiastic cheerleaders, have excellent support systems, and are interesting to talk to. Being part of a group working towards a goal feels good. We’re all doing this read-along or challenge together! I was pleasantly surprised when I joined my first read-along.
The benefits of community on mental health have long been touted. Finding other readers to connect with helps us remember that we are not alone. Reading can be a solitary activity. When we flip that last page or get stuck in the middle of a book, it’s helpful to go to friends who can relate to what we are feeling. They want to talk about the last book they loved and which one they couldn’t get into. They want to know your thoughts on everything from theme to character development to world-building.
Reading challenges are excellent for accountability purposes. More people respond to outer expectations and have trouble meeting inner expectations. Gretchen Rubin calls these people obligers. They’ll complete a task when someone (or something) outside themselves is expecting them to. So, for people who have trouble reading at all or who want to make a new habit, a reading challenge could really help. They are good motivators for the people who accept them.
It’s also an easy way for people to keep track of the books they have read. Many people want to have a record of what they have read. By keeping track of what they’ve read, it’s easier for these people to reflect on their reading practice. They can easily see if they are reading all one genre, one gender, or one race. Reflecting on your habits is beneficial for mental health. It gives you an opportunity to recognize healthy or unhealthy patterns, can be a tool for change, and helps with developing self-compassion.
To Help Avoid Slumps
We’ve all had a reading slump. You finish an amazing book and have decision paralysis about what to start next. That analysis paralysis can cause anxiety and make you feel stuck. Participating in a challenge takes away some of that decision fatigue. It can jumpstart you back into reading by narrowing your choices. Because when every option is available, it feels like no option exists. Being able to have the challenge choose your next book for you can be a relief.
There are always new challenges being created, and trying new things is good for our mental health. People who try something new are more likely to keep positive emotions and lessen negative ones. There’s a section of our midbrain that is referred to as the “novelty center,” which responds to new stimuli. Doing something new activates the novelty center, triggering new dopamine pathways and making us happy. It feels rewarding.
More than that, reading itself releases dopamine in the brain. If challenges jumpstart us into reading, then we get all the mental health benefits of increased dopamine production. (Maybe this is why my dopamine-deprived ADHD brain likes reading so much?) Explore this excellent piece on the science of reading for even more insight.
What it boils down to is that it depends on your personal reasons for joining a challenge. They can add stress, anxiety, and more work to your life. But challenges can also bring you into community, keep you on track, and give you an opportunity to reflect on your reading practice. As I said in the beginning, it’s nuanced. You’re the only one who can enter or accept challenges. It’s entirely what you make it.
If these reasons struck a chord with you, then you might want to read about how to get through a reading slump or about embracing reading slumps. Also, here are 8 books about mental health to remind you that you’re not alone and how to build a bookish mental health toolkit.