Courage, honor, courtesy, a willingness to help those in need. Does this remind you of someone? Your mother, your father? Husband, perhaps? Did you smile, thinking of that person?
Likely so, because those qualities are representative of what we as a society consider to be good. And good things make us happy. Those qualities are also the core qualities expected of the fearless Knights who inspired tales of chivalry in the Middle Ages, otherwise known as the birth of the romance literary genre. A genre defined by an “emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending”—and all that chest muscle, of course.
The romance genre exploded in the mid-seventeenth century with a book entitled Pamela; Or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson. This novel, told from the perspective of the heroine, is centered around the love between a maid and the wealthy landowner, and is widely considered the first English romance novel. Whether it be Knights or wealthy Englishmen, one thing holds true for the genre—that coveted happily-ever-after ending. That feeling of hope. Those last few pages that remind us that love truly does conquer all. That even through darkness, comes light. And never has that mindset been needed more than in the last twelve months.
Due to an unprecedented pandemic, humans, social by nature, were forced indoors, into months of lockdown, into a solitary life that for most of us did not include toilet paper. We clung to anything that grounded us, reminded us of “good,” and made us happy. Anything that made us escape from the scary world outside our front door. For many of us, this escape came in the form of books. A way to leave reality, if only for a short period of time, and recalibrate our bodies.
Over the last few decades, hundreds of studies have been published about the benefit of reading on mental health. A growing body of research indicates that reading literally changes your mind, strengthening the complex network of circuits and signals vital to our brain health. Reading has been shown to put our brains into a state similar to meditation, and it brings with it the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.
More than that, reading educates us and encourages us to look at the world differently. It gives us a way to walk in someone else’s shoes and therefore offers us a deeper understanding of humanity. With over 750 million books sold in the US alone each year, reading has long provided an escape from reality. But the romance genre takes it one step further. It taps into our core need as a human to be loved. To be saved, to grip onto that light at the end of the tunnel. To believe in happily ever after’s.
In a year filled with pain and uncertainty, the romance genre reminded us of what is truly important—caring and commitment toward others. Including, but not limited to, not taking the last roll of toilet paper. Cheers to romance and to finding your happily ever after.