Let me start by acknowledging my bias. I am a fiction writer at heart, I’ve been writing stories since primary school, and it is my greatest ambition in life. Alongside that I’m a fiction reader, I try to read non-fiction as well, but it is fiction that captivates me to my core. In psychology, we always say that a researcher, or human, cannot help but be biased, and so the best that they can do is acknowledge that bias. I recognise my bias. So now that this is out of the way, I’m prepared to show you why you need to start reading more fiction and the many ways it will improve your life.
Fiction often gets a bad reputation, labelled as frivolous or unnecessary. We’ve entered the age of the hustle, where every spare moment should be spent on non-fiction books that elevate you towards your goal. Yet somehow Netflix binge-watches are removed from this. I had a friend tell me that she only reads non-fiction as she considers fiction to be ‘pointless’, and then ask me if I had seen the latest ‘Keeping Up With The Kardashians' episode (Spoiler: I had not).
Fiction has been our companion for centuries, yet it is somehow being pushed aside in a world increasing in speed. Whilst the benefits of non-fiction books are easier to see, promising to make you more productive, healthier, or a better writer, to name a few, fiction has many merits to speak of as well. From building your self-discipline to enjoying a better night of sleep, let’s take a look at the benefits of reading fiction.
The New Yorker went as far as to compare reading to meditation, showing that reading puts our brains in a similar trance-like state. It is a moment of pure stress-relief, rare in our fast-paced society.
Research conducted at the University of Sussex highlighted that reading is the most effective activity for overcoming stress. It reduced stress at a better rate than listening to music or going for a walk, as within 6 minutes of silent reading, participants’ muscle tension had eased up to 68%, and their heart rate had slowed down. Why? Researchers believed that it was about concentration, as the mind’s focus on reading had caused a distraction to the body’s stress. Listening to music or walking requires less attention and therefore reduced distraction. I’m not sure the same could be said for reading a thriller novel!
But would this apply to non-fiction as easily as fiction? Perhaps. But fiction could provide additional stress-relief through the removal of reality. Reading self-help books may cause you to relate them to your own situation or life, removing you from the distraction, whilst fiction is more likely to keep you enthralled. Furthermore, there is a weightlessness to existing in a reality without consequences, knowing in your heart that it doesn’t matter how this ends, and it doesn’t relate to real people. I believe that it gives your brain a break whilst still keeping you focused.
“Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers." - The New Yorker.
We’ve all been there; you get so invested into a book and its characters that their feelings and experiences become your own. This is the result of your empathy, drawn-out through fiction novels. We use this empathy on a daily basis, to feel sadness for our friend’s loss, to share in their happiness, to provide compassion for others. Some go as far as to say that empathy is what makes us human. If that’s the case, it’s scary to witness our increasingly technological world’s impact on empathy regulation.
Fiction novels present you with new worlds, storylines and characters, acting almost as an exercise for your empathy. It is often a dramatised version of reality, allowing us to stretch our empathy further and place us into unknown situations. This helps us consider different perspectives and grow empathy for them, something we can use when we come into contact with new people who differ from us. Consider them to be a reality-stimulator, testing us in changing environments so that we’re prepared for anything.
“Fiction helps with our capacity for social engagement because it allows us to gain more nuanced and varied experience in terms of human relationships.” - Nick Williams, CRM.
Even fiction novels that occur in a very similar reality or recognisable events influence our empathy in how we reflect on ourselves. We consider what it means to be a human being. We are taken along a journey and often questioned in how we would act, how we would feel.
Research has compared brain imaging of fiction readers and a sample to discover this increase empathy functioning:
"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.
Self-discipline is vital to our daily functioning. Whether you work a 9-5, freelance from home or look after your family, self-discipline constructs the way we lead our lives. It’s a vital trait looked for by employers, partners and friends. We can all let loose, eat too many biscuits or drink too much, but success in the day-to-day requires self-discipline, and reading fiction allows you to build that. Even making a micro habit of reading ten minutes before sleep each evening can improve your self-discipline in strides.
You’re not only putting away your phone and other technology to sit down and read, but you’re shutting out other stimuli and focusing solely on the present. This is a skill we lack severely nowadays, as we’re often multitasking and thinking several steps ahead. My sister once described it as that our minds have the ability to time travel, and we spend the majority of our time in the past or future, but rarely in the present.
Reading allows you to chain yourself to the moment, even though the novel may take you to another galaxy or century. You’re sitting down and focusing on a story; you’re teaching your mind about self-discipline and attention.
Despite the constant flood of information we’re subjected to on our phones, we don’t process information as we used to. We skim through articles, swipe over photos and listen rather than read more often than not. Reading fiction forces your brain to process information whilst keeping an open mind, a skill deemed necessary for effective decision making.
Maybe it’s piecing together the story later, keeping an eye out for clues and tidbits, but it’s been shown that readers experience slower memory decline later in their lives. I guess if you read a series of five books, you’re often reminding yourself of earlier event and characters in a way that you don’t have to watch a TV show, as you’ll be reminded of everything you need to know or given flashbacks - the lazy way out!
A study in 2001, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, even demonstrated that individuals who read more display fewer Alzheimer’s disease characteristics.
Something that has increased positively with technology and social media is the ability to express ourselves, to find a platform and share our thoughts. Most of us yearn to be heard and understand, and language plays a significant role in this. Vocabulary can be the key to expressing ourselves and connecting with others. Reading non-fiction can teach you many skills that fiction can’t, but fiction can still trump in terms of vocabulary. The beautiful manner in which words are strung together, the prose that can capture your heart. I find it so remarkable how mere text can incite fear or sadness; within 200 pages, they have you rooting for a character or hating them down to your core. And that’s all down to the words and phrases they construct.
A 2013 study by Emory University compared readers brains to non-readers and found that readers contained more increased activity in particular areas. This includes the left temporal cortex, the part of the brain most associated with understanding language.
Whether or not you work in a creative field, we all could use some creativity. I consider imagination to be an incredible gift we possess and one we should exercise as much as possible. Whether that is through writing, painting, music or even just daydreaming. Creativity allows us to believe that there is more out there than what initially meets the eye or ear; it lets us push the boundaries into the beautiful.
If you do work in a creative field or have a creative hobby, you need to be reading fiction. You need to be experiencing alternative realities and possibilities, living more lives than the one you lead. Inspiration comes from anywhere, that could be a classic novel, a sci-fi series or an erotic romance. You just never know, so don’t prematurely close doors that could lead you to the next big thing.
If you don’t work or pleasure in creative fields, then you also need to read fiction. You need to give your mind this creative escape and indulge yourself or fear losing that part of yourself that you developed as a child.
Prioritising my sleep is one of the best things I ever did. It was initially difficult, as we live in a culture that promotes hustling and pushing yourself past your limits, we easily slip into a competition of “who is the most stress/busy/overworked?”. We almost take pride in not caring for ourselves. Sleep is an investment in your health, both physically and mentally. It is your body’s chance to recuperate and recover, and sets you up for the day to follow.
Reading can assist you in achieving better sleep quality and length. I read for ten minutes before sleep each evening, which allows me to disengage from the day and relax. It also ensures that I’m not on my phone right before going to sleep. After a few days of this habit, you’ll find yourself falling asleep quicker and having a deeper sleep. Anytime off of your phone is beneficial, but before bed more than ever.
Can the same be said of non-fiction? Tim Ferriss believes not, suggesting that non-fiction “encourages projection into the future and preoccupation/planning” whilst fiction “engages the imagination and demands present-state attention”.
By reading non-fiction or a self-help book, you’re thinking steps ahead and of your day tomorrow, whilst reading before bed should be about aligning your focus to the present and easing yourself into the end of your day.
Reading isn’t a cure-all; you can’t take a daily dose of Vitamin R(ead) and feel magically improved. But it is a step, an important one at that. It is a micro habit to take into your day, one that provides a moment of self-care, self-reflection and silence. It is a chance to step away from the blue lights and focus on the pages, to teach yourself discipline, compassion and empathy. But more than that, it is the chance to be a child again, even for 200 pages. To be taken from our reality into another, to experience things you may never get to. Reading allows you to live one hundred lives alongside your own.
Can you think of any other benefits of reading fiction that I missed?
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
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