Reading fiction is good for your brain, but it also makes for a strong heart and a happier world
The act of reading is one of life’s simplest joys; it might be the easiest way for a human to access happiness in solitude. All you need is a book and a relatively quiet spot. There’s no planning or physical exertion required. And with a library card you can do it for free. It can happen anywhere. A book is portable, but it’s also a portal. A mental passport to other worlds and new lands – all without moving from the couch or the hammock. “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies.” Says the quote, and it’s arguably truer than 99% of what the internet says.
There is empathy in ink. Research shows reading literary fiction allows readers to experience what it may be like to live life in another’s shoes, or wings, or a circuit board. Reading is a magical hobby but it’s also capable of kicking off mental health miracles.
First point: fiction is good for your heart. A 2009 study at the University of Sussex revealed that reading fiction reduces stress by up to 68%; better even than listening to music when it comes to stress release. Turn the screen and the speakers off, and smell the nostalgia locked within the paper pages of a real book. No electricity needed.
The miracles continue. Research from 2014 concludes that while all narrative media—like movies or podcasts or spoken word poetry—helps diminish stress, textual narrative (AKA “reading”), remains king. Mythology has long passed down moral lessons on the back of a good story, but what it’s gifted us on a far greater level has been an absorbing experience: attention, transportation, emotional engagement, and mental imagery. Collectively they add up to two qualities: enjoyment and impact. Reading pleases us while teaching us to do better, or at least more.
Some therapists agree on the power of reading. Bibliotherapy is a therapeutic practice based on selected reading material aimed at tackling mental health issues. Indeed, reading helps us stay levelled out long after we’ve turned the page. Research shows less depression. A fascinating 1992 study from the University of Michigan proves older regular readers have a 20% reduction in mortality compared to non-readers. That alone is a good reason to curl up on the couch with some George Saunders.
People say we are reading more than ever, and technically it’s probably true. Through social media and general internet use, we take in a ton of words, but do we benefit from those words? Most digital words are published to satiate curiosity or invoke emotions. They increase stress levels.
Despite word count similarities, scrolling 400 Instagram posts per day does not come close to a rousing short story set in the grand landscape of the imagination. And, unlike social media, reading programs have been proven to support youth mental health. Through conversations about the stories read, and through developing connections to story, children, and teenagers are given tools to deal with mental health.
No matter what story-filled page you open, science says it’s good for us; trashy romance novels, intellectual thrillers, the literary canon, erotica, even comic books, and graphic novels—all of them help us understand each other. That is more than good for the world. It’s good for the soul.
Think paper and ink and a sun-soaked, soft spot to sit. No advertisements. No distractions. No problems. And a whole lot of mental well-being in that wild, wonderful mind. Go ahead. Open up.
While there is empathy in ink, there is also empathy in healthcare. Learn how Pleio offers patients a human-first approach to help address emotional barriers, like stress, associated with non-adherence at www.pleio.com.