5 Surprising Ways Reading Fiction Benefits Your Mental Health

Reading stories does so much more for us than ‘add knowledge.’
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Reading stories does so much more for us than ‘add knowledge.’

Several months ago, I interviewed an elderly man who was sharp as a tack. While he claimed his fitness regimen played a key role in his mental acuteness, it was clear that his commitment to reading also contributed to keeping his mind fit, too. As he shared his perspectives on fitness with me, he routinely referenced and recommended different books, revealing his fervent reading habits.

It wasn’t long before he was telling me all about his favorite authors—from traveling to history and fiction. The books he read didn’t just keep him up to date on new topics—they kept his brain strong, too.

This made me wonder if reading a chapter in a novel is just as effective in keeping our minds flexible as crossword puzzles, Sudoku, “brain training,” and even adult coloring books. I’m not simply talking about learning new things through piles of nonfiction books (which is great, don’t get me wrong)—I’m talking about the simple act of reading, of immersing yourself into a story, real or, in particular, imagined.

Personally, I feel more mentally acute when I make reading stories a high priority. I didn’t realize how much I depended on them until I found myself too busy to read (an actual book—not just skimming articles or speed-reading emails)—and I began to notice negative mental changes in myself. Once I started picking up novels again, my anxiety subsided, I was happier, and I felt like I was a more objective, critical thinker.

Turns out, science has my back, too. Taking time to sit back and read a fictional book is one of the best “brain exercises” you can do for yourself, your mental health, and even for your future aging self. Here are a few key reasons why that is.

01. It helps you de-stress, improve focus, and sleep better.

Even when you’re not working, it can be hard to shake that frazzled, unfocused feeling as your attention span is ripped apart in ten different ways through texts, calls, snaps, emails, and tweets following your every move. It’s as if we’re each carrying a miniature office with us at all times.

In a world of perpetual distractions, it can be hard to turn off your brain. Turns out that taking time to read can be the perfect antidote. Researchers at the University of Sussex conducted a study that showed reading was more effective at tackling stress than listening to music or getting up and taking a walk—reducing stress by 68 percent.

Dr. Lewis, who conducted the study, told The Telegraph, “It really doesn’t matter what book you read; by losing yourself in a thoroughly engrossing book, you can escape from the worries and stresses of the everyday world and spend a while exploring the domain of the author’s imagination. . . . This is more than merely a distraction but an active engaging of the imagination as the words on the printed page stimulate your creativity and cause you to enter what is essentially an altered state of consciousness.”

In other words, the meditative-like qualities of reading help our brains escape their multitasking funk and get us used to the mindful practice of concentrating on one thing at a time—which can greatly eliminate triggers of modern stress.

Don’t believe me? Start reading something engrossing for fifteen to twenty minutes a day—whether it’s on the subway on your way home, after dinner, or as a part of your morning routine. You might be surprised about how this small change will remind you of what it’s like to completely focus, sans scrolling.

02. A lifetime of reading can keep your brain agile.

According to a study featured in Neurology, fostering the habit of reading as a child until old age might greatly slow down memory decline. The study involved nearly 294 participants who lived until an average age of 89. The results were telling.

Those who were actively mentally engaged—reading or otherwise—had a 32 percent lower rate of mental decline, compared to those who were averagely engaged with mentally stimulating activities. On the opposite end of the spectrum, those who infrequently engaged in mental activity declined at a far swifter rate; their cognitive functions declined 48 percent faster.

03. It might even keep Alzheimer’s at bay.

Reading was shown to have a great effect on reducing the chance for Alzheimer’s disease in particular—but only if participants were avid readers, which meant they commit to the practice at least an hour per day. Perusing the newspaper or reading an article in a magazine did not have the same effect as delving deeply into a book. Makes sense, considering that when we read, we’re constantly recalling the plot, character descriptions, histories, backgrounds, personalities—and even the visuals that we created of them in our heads. While this can be a lot to remember, it’s a fantastic (and fun) exercise for our brain, forcing it to forge new brain pathways (synapses) and to constantly keep our memories fine-tuned.

04. It helps you sleep better.

While reading on your iPad screen might actually have the opposite effect in helping you get quality zzz’s—reading a good old-fashioned paper book as a part of your nighttime routine is a great way to get yourself ready for one of the best things you can do for your health: sleep. According to the Mayo Clinic, reading a physical book can help you ease the transition from being alert and awake to being calm and restful. I’ll snooze to that.

05. It makes you more empathetic—which can help improve your relationships.

Even in science fiction books, relationships play a big part in plot. Immersing yourself in characters’ shoes reminds us of different perspectives—and can move us to use these skills outside our novels, too. According to research published in Science, literary fiction in particular can help us read emotional cues and analyze other people’s motives. This, in turn, can make us more understanding human beings, which can greatly enhance our personal relationships. It doesn’t just expand our worldview—it expands our hearts.

While nonfiction is its own form of art, reading fictional stories can enrich our lives in ways beyond injecting historical factoids into our brains or exposing us to the latest science. In reading fiction, we have a rare and wonderful excuse to escape into a world we’ve created in our imagination, which can be one of the best exercises the human mind has to offer. Check out your local library or Amazon for reliable lists of this month’s top books based on editor and reader picks. Then prepare for your brain to blossom.

Photo Credit: Corynne Olivia Photography