The Surprising Power of Reading Fiction: 9 Ways it Make Us Happier and More Creative (2022)

“There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.” ― Doris Lessing

One of the most inspiring perks we’re lucky enough to have at Buffer is a free Kindle for each teammate (and her family!) and as many free Kindle books as you like, no questions asked.

When we share what we’re reading at Buffer on our Pinterest page or in our Slack community, the selections often tend to skew more toward non-fiction—you can generally find teammates reading books that help us improve at our jobs, understand our world better and become more productive, for example.

What’s interesting—and maybe a bit counterintuitive—is that reading fiction can provide many of those same self-improvement benefits, even while exploring other worlds through stories that exist only in the mind.

In fact, the practice of using books, poetry and other written words as a form of therapy has helped humans for centuries. Fiction is a uniquely powerful way to understand others, tap into creativity and exercise your brain.

The next time you feel even a tiny bit guilty for picking up a work of fiction instead of a self-help book, consider these 9 benefits of reading fiction.

The Surprising Power of Reading Fiction: 9 Ways it Make Us Happier and More Creative (1)

1. Empathy: Imagining creates understanding

To put yourself in the shoes of others and grow your capacity for empathy, you can hardly do better than reading fiction. Multiple studies have shown that imagining stories helps activate the regions of your brain responsible for better understanding others and seeing the world from a new perspective.

When the psychologist Raymond Mar analyzed 86 fMRI studies, he saw substantial overlap in the brain networks used to understand stories and the networks used to navigate interactions with other individuals.

“…In particular, interactions in which we’re trying to figure out the thoughts and feelings of others. Scientists call this capacity of the brain to construct a map of other people’s intentions ‘theory of mind.’ Narratives offer a unique opportunity to engage this capacity, as we identify with characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives and track their encounters with friends and enemies, neighbors and lovers.”
The Surprising Power of Reading Fiction: 9 Ways it Make Us Happier and More Creative (2)

That’s because when we read about a situation or feeling, it’s very nearly as if we’re feeling it ourselves. As Fast Company reports:

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.

2. Disengagement: Reading is most effective for stress

Your brain can’t operate at maximum capacity 24/7—far from it. We all need periods of disengagement to rest our cognitive capabilities and get back to peak functionality.

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Tony Schwartz talks about this as one of the most overlooked elements of our lives: Even the fastest racing car can’t win the race with at least one or two great pit stops. The same holds true for ourselves. If we don’t have “pit-stops” built into our days, there is now chance we can race at a high performance.

And reading fiction is among the very best ways to get that disengaged rest. The New Yorker reports that:

Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.

Research at the University of Sussex shows that reading is the most effective way to overcome stress, beating out other methods like listening to music or taking a walk.

Within 6 minutes of silent reading, participants’ heart rates slowed and tension in their muscles eased up to 68%. Psychologists believe reading works so well because the mind’s concentration creates a distraction that eases the body’s stress.

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3. Sleep: Regular readers sleep better

In fact, the kind of relaxed disengagement that reading creates can become the perfect environment for helping you sleep.

Creating a sleep ritual is a great way to build up a consistent sleep pattern. One of the key things is to have the last activity completely disengage you from the tasks of the rest of your day.

Buffer’s CEO, Joel, has a ritual in the evening of going for a short walk and, upon returning, going straight to bed and reading a fiction book. He reports that it helps him disengage from the work he’s done in the day and get the sleep he needs to wake up refreshed and ready for the next day.

Serial optimizer Tim Ferriss also believes in the power of reading before bed—fiction only:

“Do not read non-fiction prior to bed, which encourages projection into the future and preoccupation/planning. Read fiction that engages the imagination and demands present-state attention. Recommendations for compulsive non-fiction readers include Motherless Brooklyn and Stranger in a Strange Land.”

4. Improved relationships: Books are a ‘reality simulator’

Life is complicated. Oftentimes, interpersonal relationships and challenges don’t have the simple resolutions we might like. How can we become more accepting of this reality? By using fiction to explore ideas of change, complex emotions and the unknown.

Keith Oatley, an emeritus professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, proposed to the New York Times that reading produces a kind of reality simulation that “runs on minds of readers just as computer simulations run on computers.”

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Fiction, Dr. Oatley notes, “is a particularly useful simulation because negotiating the social world effectively is extremely tricky, requiring us to weigh up myriad interacting instances of cause and effect. Just as computer simulations can help us get to grips with complex problems such as flying a plane or forecasting the weather, so novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life.”
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Writer Eileen Gunn suggests that reading science fiction, in particular, helps us accept change more readily:

“What science fiction does, especially in those works that deal with the future, is help people understand that things change and that you can live through it. Change is all around us. Probably things change faster now than they did four or five hundred years ago, particularly in some parts of the world.”

5. Memory: Readers have less mental decline in later life

We know that hearing a story is a great way to remember information for the long-term.

Now there’s also evidence that readers experience slower memory declined later in life compared to non-readers. In particular, later-in-life readers have a 32 percent lower rate of mental decline compared to their peers.

In addition to slower memory decline, those who read more have been found to show less characteristics of Alzheimer’s disease, according to a 2001 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

6. Inclusivity: Stories open your mind

Can reading Harry Potter make us more inclusive, tolerant and open-minded? One study says yes. (A butterbeer toast for everyone!)

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, tested whether the novels of Harry Potter could be used as a tool for improving attitudes toward stigmatized groups.

After 3 experiments in which students read passages of the books about discrimination, the students showed changed attitudes about everything from immigrants to gay students.

Mic reports that “the researchers credited the books with improving readers’ ability to assume the perspective of marginalized groups. They also claimed that young children, with the help of a teacher, were able to understand that Harry’s frequent support of “mudbloods” was an allegory towards bigotry in real-life society.”

There’s no doubt that books can open your mind. This great, short TED talk by Lisa Bu shows just how much:

7. Vocabulary: Fiction readers build more language

We all want the kind of vocabulary that can help us express ourselves and connect with others.

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Fiction can help you get there. A 2013 Emory University compared the brains of people after they read fiction (specifically, Robert Harris’ Pompeii over nine nights) to the brains of people who didn’t read.

The brains of the readers showed more activity in certain areas than those who didn’t read—especially the left temporal cortex, the part of the brain typically associated with understanding language.

The website testyourvocab.com analyzed millions of its test-takers to discover the somewhat expected conclusion that reading more builds a bigger vocabulary. What was less expected was how much of a difference the type of reading made: Fiction readers were significantly more likely to have a larger vocabulary:

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The study noted: “That fiction reading would increase vocabulary size more than just non-fiction was one of our hypotheses — it makes sense, after all, considering that fiction tends to use a greater variety of words than non-fiction does. However, we hadn’t expected its effect to be this prominent.”

8. Creativity: Fictions allows for uncertainty (where creativity thrives!)

In the movies, we often long for a happy ending. Have you noticed that fiction can be much more ambiguous?

That’s exactly what makes it the perfect environment for creativity. A study published in Creativity Research Journal asked students to read either a short fictional story or a non-fiction essay and then measured their emotional need for certainty and stability.

Researchers discovered that the fiction readers had less need for “cognitive closure” than those who read non-fiction, and added:

“These findings suggest that reading fictional literature could lead to better procedures of processing information generally, including those of creativity.”

9. Pleasure: Reading makes you happier

All the above factors are great. But the very biggest reason I try to read every single day? I love it. It makes me happy, and I’m not alone—a survey of 1,500 adult readers in the UK found that 76% of them said reading improves their life and helps to make them feel good.

Other findings of the survey are that those who read books regularly are on average more satisfied with life, happier, and more likely to feel that the things they do in life are worthwhile.

It’s fascinating to me to think about how much has changed in American life and media during the years in the chart below, published by Pew. Somehow reading for pleasure has been able to hang in there throughout—even with the advent of the Internet, smart phones and so many more attention-zapping inventions.

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The Surprising Power of Reading Fiction: 9 Ways it Make Us Happier and More Creative (6)

It must be doing something good for us!

Over to you!

Can you tell a difference in yourself when you take some time out to read fiction? What are some of your favorite books or genres for reading?

I’d love to hear all your thoughts and recommendations in the comments!

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FAQs

The Surprising Power of Reading Fiction: 9 Ways it Make Us Happier and More Creative? ›

The Surprising Power of Reading Fiction: 9 Ways it Make Us Happier and More Creative
  • Empathy: Imagining creates understanding. ...
  • Disengagement: Reading is most effective for stress. ...
  • Sleep: Regular readers sleep better. ...
  • Improved relationships: Books are a 'reality simulator'
Apr 19, 2018

What are the advantages of reading fiction? ›

Recent research in neuroscience suggests that you might look to the library for solutions; reading literary fiction helps people develop empathy, theory of mind, and critical thinking. When we read, we hone and strengthen several different cognitive muscles, so to speak, that are the root of the EQ.

Does reading fiction make you happier? ›

Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.

How does fiction influence our lives? ›

Reading Fiction Enhances Our Imagination

By taking us into another world, it opens our minds to new ideas and possibilities that definitely help us experience and analyze the world through others' lives. This practice strengthens our mind and helps us in understanding new things.

Why fiction is good for you summary? ›

Fiction enhances our ability to understand other people; it promotes a deep morality that cuts across religious and political creeds. More peculiarly, fiction's happy endings seem to warp our sense of reality. They make us believe in a lie: that the world is more just than it actually is.

Why do I love reading fiction? ›

Fiction readers not only experience the protagonist's point of view, but his innermost thoughts. They spend hours with his perspective and learning about his background. They think and care about someone very different from themselves. Fiction also allows readers to experience new settings.

How do you enjoy reading fiction? ›

How To Enjoy Reading
  1. Make time for it. Simply put, you make time for what's important to you. ...
  2. Find the best way to consume your books for your lifestyle. ...
  3. Keep a list of what you want to read next. ...
  4. Find a buddy! ...
  5. Always keep a book with you. ...
  6. Track what you've read. ...
  7. Read what you love. ...
  8. Now it's your turn!
May 10, 2017

What is importance of reading? ›

Reading gets your mind working across different areas. For starters, it involves comprehension to process the words you read. Beyond that, you can use your analytical abilities, stimulate memories, and even broaden your imagination by reading words off a page.

What is Happy reading? ›

It's essentially a way of saying “enjoy your reading time”.

How does reading make you a better person? ›

Reading helps us empathise much better, allowing us to connect with other people more as it trains us to understand and accept other perspectives. Our executive functioning improves because of these effects on the brain.

How can fiction help shape our future? ›

In an age of big data, artificial intelligence, and continual forecasting, fiction can help us navigate uncertainty by opening our eyes to a wide range of scenarios.

Do fictional characters affect our real life? ›

Psychologists believe that fictional characters influence us in real life. Several studies and research have also confirmed the same. While fiction may not be everyone's cup of tea, it allows you to participate in the lives of others.

How reading fiction can shape our real lives? ›

One group of researchers argue that in “reading the written work of others, you enter their minds. In coming to terms with the mind of another, you can come to better discover your own.” In doing so, we can discover new perspectives through which to understand ourselves and others.

What is the use of fiction? ›

Fiction may very well provide useful insights into human behavior. Novelists may provide new ways of looking at human behavior, and they may suggest possible research hypotheses that can be tested through experiments.

Is fiction important to humanity? ›

It introduces us to people and places we would not otherwise know. It helps us communicate better. It exposes us to the many ways a problem or conflict can be solved. It helps us get into the hearts and minds of characters we meet, it helps us see their world through their eyes.

Does reading make you more creative? ›

Reading fiction books not only develop your imaginative power but also improve your Emotional Intelligence. They also provide mental simulation, boost creativity and help in developing our memory.

How does reading affect your life? ›

Reading is good for you because it improves your focus, memory, empathy, and communication skills. It can reduce stress, improve your mental health, and help you live longer. Reading also allows you to learn new things to help you succeed in your work and relationships.

What we get from reading? ›

Research shows that regular reading: improves brain connectivity. increases your vocabulary and comprehension. empowers you to empathize with other people.

How do you read Happy answers? ›

Happiness is a positive by-product of keeping active. But not just being busy, we need to be doing things that raise self-esteem and bring us satisfaction; controlling our own schedule and prioritising activities that satisfy our own needs. And saying 'no' to other people if necessary.

Does fiction make you a better person? ›

At the Princeton Social Neuroscience Lab, psychologist Diana Tamir has demonstrated that people who often read fiction have better social cognition. In other words, they're more skilled at working out what other people are thinking and feeling.

Why reading fiction is not a waste of time? ›

In the event of reading a book, reading fiction is not a waste of time because reading fiction makes better writers, strengthens the imagination, and it can be a fun thing to do. To begin with, the reason to why fiction is not a waste of time is because fiction can actually make better writers.

Can fictional characters fall in love? ›

Fictosexuality, fictoromance, and fictophilia are terms that have recently become popular in online environments as indicators of strong and lasting feelings of love, infatuation, or desire for one or more fictional characters.

Can fictional characters change your personality? ›

Summary: When you “lose yourself” inside the world of a fictional character while reading a story, you may actually end up changing your own behavior and thoughts to match that of the character, a new study suggests.

Why do fictional characters make me happy? ›

“The experiences with fictional characters resonate with us because of the fact that we've had deep experiences with people throughout our lives.” Empathy and sympathy are phenomena we experience almost daily in our dealings with others, and they play key roles in the way we respond to fictional characters.

Does fiction mean real? ›

Fiction is fabricated and based on the author's imagination. Short stories, novels, myths, legends, and fairy tales are all considered fiction. While settings, plot points, and characters in fiction are sometimes based on real-life events or people, writers use such things as jumping off points for their stories.

Which word would best describe fiction? ›

What is another word for fiction?
storytale
legendnarrative
romanceyarn
booknarration
novelanecdote
103 more rows

What is fiction in your own words? ›

A fiction is a deliberately fabricated account of something. It can also be a literary work based on imagination rather than on fact, like a novel or short story. The Latin word fictus means “to form,” which seems like a good source for the English word fiction, since fiction is formed in the imagination.

What are the examples of fiction? ›

Mysteries, science fiction, romance, fantasy, chick lit, crime thrillers are all fiction genres. Examples of classic fiction include To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens, 1984 by George Orwell and Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

Why is fiction better than non fiction? ›

While the fiction engages the imagination and demands present-state attention. Fiction pose us with hypothetical questions and explores us with potential consequences. But this is not possible with a nonfiction book. Nonfiction books give us facts, information while the fictional books develop our ability to think.

What are the benefits of reading non fiction? ›

Why Reading Non-Fiction is Important
  • Some benefits of reading non-fiction:
  • 1) One understands the reality after reading non-fiction. ...
  • 2) Non-fiction enlightens one with a specific idea of subjectivity. ...
  • 3) It provides you with facts. ...
  • 4) Non-fiction helps in making readers practical.
May 27, 2017

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