Guest blog post by Richard Seymour

I am an undergraduate student at Keele University, studying a dual honours degree in psychology and English. The word ‘psychology’ comes up in every other English lecture—whether it be the psychology of the reader, the author or the characters in the book—but I didn’t hear anything about literature in a psychology lecture. This is, perhaps, understandable but the humanities, and literature especially, have a great deal to offer psychology.

Although I didn’t have the option to write a joint dissertation, I did want to bring the two courses together in my final year psychology research project. I completed a lifestory module in my first year where I worked with an older adult in an assisted living facility, which introduced me to the issue of loneliness in an ageing population. Literature had always been good for me and my wellbeing so I turned my mind to putting the two together.

This resulted in a six-week pilot study where I examined the effect different themes of poetry have on older adults reading them in groups. What I found was that the social aspect of reading poetry in a group proved extremely valuable. This benefit was boosted by the reading of more difficult, literary poetry. This supports the findings of previous research which reported working together to ‘decipher’ a poem had a positive effect on wellbeing.

It may be that the challenging nature of the task and the opportunity for clear and instant feedback leads to the experience of flow where individuals become absorbed, momentarily lose a conscious sense of self and of time passing. Other research suggests flow can improve reported self-efficacy which, itself, is linked to a higher sense of wellbeing.

At the very least, the six-week poetry group I ran created new friendships and the often personal nature of the discussion of poems allowed members of the group to get to know each more deeply.