The act of reading has health benefits far beyond learning about new topics or escaping into your imagination. Interestingly, reading fiction is just as healthy for your brain as reading nonfiction. So, whether you’re reading for entertainment or personal growth, know the physical and emotional health benefits of reading happen regardless of the content you're consuming. So, crack open that romance novel, spy thriller, or self-help book knowing you’re doing your brain good.
1. Reading reduces stress.
Research from the University of Sussex in 2009 found reading reduced stress by up to 68%. In fact, reading was found to be more stress-relieving than taking a walk or listening to music. Researchers speculate this is because reading invites you into another world, allowing your brain to become absorbed in a completely different subject matter or series of events in the present moment. Whether you're reading a fascinating nonfiction book about brain chemistry or a heart-breaking young adult title, you're transported between the pages — and your brain gets a breather from your day-to-day stresses.
2. Reading helps connect disparate ideas.
Ever get stuck on a problem at work only to come up with the solution later that night when you've closed your laptop and opened that mystery? Close reading not only improves reading comprehension; it helps you make new connections in your brain. According to the Journal of Developmental Education, reading allows your brain to create connections where none existed previously. A character in your book might have the perfect turn of phrase or metaphor for that PowerPoint presentation you're working on, or a random fact in a book about hoarding may help you better understand why your mom is constantly asking for help organizing her garage, even though she won't actually throw anything out.
3. Reading boosts vocabulary.
This may seem like a given, but it's worth pointing out: Reading improves the vocabulary of children as well as adults. The more you read, especially if you read a broad range of genres, the more your vocabulary increases. No need to limit your reading to the classics or brainy nonfiction. You'd be surprised at how many words you pick up while reading a detective novel.
4. Fiction leads to greater creativity.
Some of the best self-help progress can actually come from what you learn inside a novel: Reading fiction can make you a better, more open-minded thinker. Researchers at the University of Toronto found by reading fiction, you're imagining things beyond your current reality — whether you're reading contemporary fiction set in modern day life, historical fiction, or science fiction — your brain begins to build new pathways. Basically, reading about things that aren't immediately tied to your view of reality makes you more open-minded, simply because your brain now realizes other options exist. Sure, it's unlikely you'll be battling aliens anytime soon just because you read about it in a sci-fi novel, but perhaps that story tangentially helps add some flair to your work presentation.
5. Reading increases human understanding.
Whether it’s social media, the 24-hour media cycle, or something else, opinions have become quite divisive lately. It can feel like we're constantly being pitted against each other, and that every issue requires us to not only take sides, but also to judge the person on the opposing side. We're losing our ability to see other viewpoints and potentially empathize or simply engage with people who don't have the same views.
But research found reading fiction and getting into characters' minds and hearts, makes us more empathetic so we can accept that other people have other opinions. Being able to have that viewpoint may help foster more positive, useful conversations. Reading has also been shown to boost emotional intelligence by giving examples and adjectives that help you understand other people's emotions, and connect to characters rather than only seeing the world through your own emotions.
6. Reading increases longevity.
That's right: Reading can increase your longevity. Reading books specifically — not newspapers or magazines — contributed to a survival advantage according to a 2016 study. Daily readers had a 20% reduction in risk of mortality. On average, the readers who participated in this study read for 30 minutes or more each day.
Researchers noted that regardless of gender, health, wealth or education, older people showed the survival advantage of reading books. They suspect this is because reading a book immerses the reader in another world, which helps maintain and improve mental cognition. And mental cognition is associated strongly with survival: The more your brain is working, growing, and making new connections, the longer you're likely to live.
7. Reading makes you happier.
While reading clearly has plenty of health benefits, the real reason most of us are picking up a new book and diving in regularly is because reading makes us happy. There's a reason being a bookworm is a common personality trait, and why every town has a library. It's because reading is something we do for pleasure just as much as we do it to learn and gain knowledge. Survey after survey has found regular readers report feeling happier when they pick up a book. So, whether or not you care about the increased neural connections or improved longevity, it's also OK to simply read because it makes you happy.