If you’ve got kids in school, you’ve probably heard some variation of the slogan, “Read to achieve.” But even if nightly story time is sacred for your little ones, it could be that your own reading habits aren’t as consistent. According to Pew Research, a quarter of American adults say they haven’t read a book for at least a year, with men being the worst offenders at 32 percent. If that’s you, then you’re missing out on a simple pastime that can boost your brainpower, calm your nerves, and ready you for a good night’s sleep. Here are a few reasons why you should give reading a second chance or, if you’re already a bookworm, that you should double down on your favorite hobby.
1) Reading Elevates Emotional IQ
When we read about people whose experiences, backgrounds, and cultures are different to our own, it can help us get outside our little bubbles and put ourselves in other people’s shoes. A study published in Science concluded that after reading fiction, participants scored higher in an empathy assessment. Co-author David Kidd believes that literary fiction has the strongest impact on helping us project ourselves into other people’s relationships, struggles, and inner monologues. “Often those characters’ minds are depicted vaguely, without many details, and we’re forced to fill in the gaps to understand their intentions and motivations,” he told Scientific American.
Another study published in PLOS ONE investigated how reading increases our ability to relate to other people’s feelings and perspectives. They discovered that diving deep into a fictional story leads to “emotional transportation” – literally putting yourself inside the mind of the characters you’re reading about.
2) Reading Makes You Smarter
In an article for This View of Life, Harvard professor and The WEIRDest People in the World author Joseph Henrich summed up how reading changes your brain. “[Reading] has left you with a specialized area in your left ventral occipital temporal region, shifted facial recognition into your right hemisphere, reduced your inclination toward holistic visual processing, increased your verbal memory, and thickened your corpus callosum, which is the information highway that connects the left and right hemispheres of your brain.”
Phew! So what are the takeaways from this neuroscience-speak? That reading improves your ability to restore and recall information, enables your mind to connect disparate ideas, and helps you problem solve. Anne Cunningham from the University of California, Berkeley and University of Toronto psychologist Ketih Stanovich have found that reading also increases the ability to think analytically, expands vocabulary, and even enhances the quality of conversation. They concluded that the more you read and the more regularly you do it, the better.
Not sure you can spare the time? Consider this quote from Chinese philosopher Confucius, and then look at it the other way: can you afford to not? “No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.”
3) Reading Relieves Stress
Researchers at the University of Essex in England compared several ways of winding down in the evening and found that reading came out tops. In fact, respondents who regularly cracked open a book reported that their stress level was up to 68 percent lower afterward. And this doesn’t mean that you have to binge an entire book in one sitting. The co-authors noted that as little as six minutes of reading had a positive impact. One of them, Dr. David Lewis, said, “Losing yourself in a book is the ultimate relaxation. 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."
Reading also shows promise in other areas of mental health. A meta review of 17 previous studies published in Professional Psychology: Research and Practice found that bibliotherapy helped people struggling with chronic depression improve their emotional wellbeing. Another review conducted by the Salisbury NHS Foundation Trust in the UK noted that a reading program proved to be just as effective as individual counseling and group therapy.
4) Reading Increases Focus
In a world where tech tools are ubiquitous, there are an increasing number of distractions competing for your time and attention and your focus is being drawn to quick microbursts of information and communication. The trouble with turning life into one long ESPN highlight reel is that it diminishes your ability to concentrate on a single task.
According to Maryanne Wolf, Director of the UCLA Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice, reading might be the perfect remedy. In her book Reader, Come Home, she suggests that immersing yourself in a book will increase your cognitive patience, help you become a more meditative thinker, and teach you to become reflective rather than reactive. In his equally profound book The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time, David L. Ulin declares that “Reading, after all, is an act of resistance in a landscape of distraction, a matter of engagement in a society that seems to want nothing more than for us to disengage.” In other words, stop talking about how you wish you could unplug and focus more, and use a good book as the impetus to actually do it.