Allow me to dispel a myth for you: reading fiction is not a waste of time.
There is an everpresent anxiety about reading for adults, especially for people in their 20’s. Which book to read next? How much time to dedicate to reading? It seems like everyone is either anxious to be reading the most relevant career-boosting content, or wishing they would take more time to read in the first place. Non-academically-obligated fiction reading is inevitably lost in the shuffle— after all, shouldn’t you be doing something productive? As thousands of nonfiction books promise to improve time management, negotiation skills, memory, wellness, and a myriad of other things, it seems a twenty-something has no better use of their time than to read the latest edition of “how to change your life in 250 pages.”
No, don’t be fooled. If you enjoy reading fiction, do it. Even if you don’t read much and never seem to finish a book, still do it. There are many reasons to read fiction, including boosting creativity and memory, strengthening problem-solving skills, and achieving quicker and deeper sleep. However, I have chosen just three of the many scientifically proven reasons to read fiction and elaborated on them below.
1.) Improve vocabulary and communication skills
Not just any vocabulary, either — vocabulary that helps you connect with people. One study done by Emory University found that the brains of readers showed more activity in certain areas than nonreaders. The most notable difference was the left temporal cortex, the part of the brain used to process semantics of speech and understand the meaning of language. Fiction readers showed significantly more activity in the left temporal cortex than nonfiction readers.
Another study from 2018 found that even reading just one fiction book can lead to a small but statistically significant increase in social cognitive performance. This means people who read fiction are better at understanding and reacting to the language they hear.
Further, the vocabulary for avid fiction readers has shown to be thousands of words larger than people who don’t read fiction or only read it on occasion. The website testyourvocab.com analyzed millions of vocabulary tests and created the following graph to illustrate the results. Overall, the more people read fiction, the larger their vocabulary.
2.) Heighten emotional intelligence
Reading about the lives of other people (even non-existent people) helps us empathize with others in the real world. A study by the European Journal of Communication Research carefully ruled out the role of personality and found that readers of fiction have better abilities of empathy and theory of mind. Exposure to fiction also showed an increase in social support.
Other studies have backed up these results with similar findings. People who are “emotionally transported” into the world of a fiction book are especially likely to see increases in empathy. Even just imagining or telling fiction stories increases activity in the brain in regions responsible for understanding others and seeing different perspectives.
3.) Reduce stress
This probably comes as no surprise: reading fiction helps people relax and de-stress, especially through disengagement. Everyone requires periods of disengagement— times when the stressors and problems of life are temporarily forgotten. This allows people to rest their cognitive abilities and rejuvenate to peak functionality. Diving into a fiction story is an easy, effective way to disengage and improve health, and there are studies to prove it.
Research from the University of Sussex found that reading is the most effective way to decrease stress. It worked better and faster than other methods including drinking tea, going for walks, or listening to music. After just 6 minutes of silent reading, participants had slower heart rates and ease in muscle tension up to 68 percent.
Unrelenting stress is heavily linked to coronary heart disease, anxiety, depression, and lower overall life satisfaction. Finding healthy ways to disengage and manage stressors is vital to a healthy life, and reading is one of the cheaper and easier methods available.
So do yourself a favor and trade the self-help books for an immersive story once in a while. Your mind and body will thank you.