Why reading fiction will make you healthier

Woman sitting in window, reading a book and looking towards camera

Did you know that reading fiction is good for you?

We often treat reading fiction like a guilty pleasure. Something we have to steal time out for. Because we have “real” things to do.

Turns out that time reading fiction is every bit as real as any other time, and may be quite valuable for our overall health — physically, mentally and emotionally. I wish I’d known that when my mom told me to go outside and play, while I wanted to stay inside and read.

Physical health

You’d think that sitting around reading won’t do anything for your physical health. Turns out it does.

We live in a fast-paced, always-on world. Life rushes by. When we read fiction, we disconnect from all that hurrying. We de-stress. That’s a good thing.

That’s why I can spend time reading and after what seems like just a few minutes, look up to realize a bunch of time has gone by. What could have been an interminable time of a million haphazard thoughts, was spent focused on something quite different from daily life around me. Escape? Yes. But a good kind that revitalizes my body.

Reading eases the transition from active, alert, awake to calm and peaceful. I think that’s why sometimes when I sit down to read, I soon find myself ready to shut my eyes and really rest (take a nap). I’m calmer.

When we read fiction at bedtime, we get all those benefits. Even 5 or 6 minutes of reading will shift us off the things of the day and prepare us to rest. We sleep better.

A study that compared readers with non-readers over 10+ years, found a 20% reduction of mortality among the readers. So since there’s a chance I’ll live longer and healthier by reading fiction, I’m in. I can do that.

Mental health

One of the ways to keep our brains agile as we age is to read. Especially reading fiction means that the brain has to keep track of a lot of different details: characters, locations, timelines, story arcs, relationships and so on. Doing so, we’re creating new brain paths — a good thing. And we’ll then move that information from short term memory to long term memory — another good thing.

Plus as we get caught up in the story, our focus improves.

There is even some evidence to suggest that avid reading could help delay onset of Alzheimer’s.

In addition, some of the physical health benefits carry over to mental health. If we move from stress and anxiety to a calmer, relaxed state, that affects not just the body, but also the mind. Our mindset just improves.

According to researchers at the University of Sussex, reading fiction for just 6 minutes can reduce stress by over 60%. That’s awesome and something we all can use and benefit from.

Emotional health

Reading fiction can also help us develop more empathy. Fiction involves relationships between characters in the story. We get to see how those relationships play out — sometimes in a good way and sometimes negatively. The key is that we participate by reading and we observe how things play out. We see different perspectives and possible outcomes.

We’ve all had times when we’re cheering a character on to make it against all the odds. Or are ready to give the author a what-for if that evil mastermind of the story gets away with murder.

As we read, we explore any number of what-if scenarios, and can compare to how we might act in a similar situation and come out better able to deal with change.

Following the characters on the printed page, we also get to read their emotional cues and learn to analyze different characters’ motives. Almost like we were there:

Two researchers from Washington University in St. Louis scanned the brains of fiction readers and discovered that their test subjects created intense, graphic mental simulations of the sights, sounds, movements, and tastes they encountered in the narrative. In essence, their brains reacted as if they were actually living the events they were reading about. Fast Company

However, when we’re reading, we can get emotionally involved and not have to worry about how our peers will judge that involvement. We may discover feelings we wouldn’t express otherwise.

Find yourself

At some point in life, we have to figure out “Who am I?” “What do I want?” “What’s important in life to me?”

We don’t have to make all possible mistakes by ourselves. We can learn from others. From people around us and also from fictional characters and story lines.

There’s a concept of a “hero’s journey” with a number of stages that a person on that journey goes through. Each of us in real life are somewhere on our own hero’s journey.

Reading about characters like Frodo Baggins, Odysseus or Elizabeth Bennet lets us participate in their journey and learn from them. So we won’t have to struggle through wastelands, fight monsters or navigate English aristocracy. Instead, we see possible new approaches to things facing us in how the story characters deal with their challenges (and successes).

Reading as therapy

Considering all these benefits of reading fiction, it’s no surprise that there is bibliotherapy, where books are used as therapy in treating mental or psychological disorders. This approach focuses on the relationship between an individual and the content of books and poetry.

This therapy goes all the way back to King Ramses II of Egypt. It is said that there was an inscription over the door to the royal library that read: “The house of healing for the soul.”

There is certainly no doubt that reading books, and particularly fiction, can help us solve problems we face. Fictional materials are effective because of identification, catharsis and insight.

Identification with a character in the story helps us gain a new way to view our own issues.

Empathy with the character of the story allows us to undergo a catharsis to gain hope and release emotional tension.

That in turn leads to insight and changed behavior.

Reading? Nah, I watched the movie

I’m a movie fan, so this is a hard realization. But there’s a big difference between reading a fiction story and watching a movie. And it comes out in favor of reading.

When I watch a movie, all the gaps are filled in: I see and hear what the characters look like, their environments, all the details around them. Everything is choreographed to tell the story the way the director wants me to experience it.

With a book there’s much more latitude. We have to fill in the gaps. We’ll be told something about the characters and the settings, but often much less than we afterward think. That’s because our brains automagically filled in the gaps to create a picture of the story for us, drawing from our life experience.

For this reason, there was much trepidation when Peter Jackson’s movie versions of Lord of the Rings came out. Would we recognize the world he created and put on film and accept it as Tolkien’s world? Because each of us, from reading the books, had formed our own ideas of what hobbits and elves looked like and so on.

I know a girl who was in her tweens when she first discovered Harry Potter. She wasn’t much of a reader at that point. In fact, she read below her grade level. But something about the story resonated with her and that girl who’d only read comic books until then, made her way through Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

She then went on to read the other books as they came out. For her, finding a story that resonated with her enabled her to break through a fear of reading, which then helped her forward in many other areas of life. Health benefit indeed.

There. Isn’t it nice to know that when you pick up a novel to read some fiction, you’re not wasting time, but actually doing important work to improve your physical, mental and emotional health. All for the price of a book? And you get a good story too.

If you are not a fiction reader, try an experiment: Pick up a fiction book and start reading even 10 minutes a day. Keep going until you finish the book. What did that do for you? Did you gain new insights? Did it help you relax?
If you are already a fiction reader, is the variety of fiction you read helping you get the most benefit of your reading? Or could exploring other genres be helpful?