The Benefits of Reading Fiction

Reading fiction has surprising benefits. We get entertained, identify with characters and experience empathy. We follow characters’ paths through trials and difficulties we sometimes haven’t encountered ourselves.

Watching characters go through their daily lives, readers may come to understand that they aren’t alone with their problems. Everyone has difficulties, whether with parents, siblings, friends, or bosses. Stories often help us realize there are alternatives to what characters experience and  alternatives for us as well. Visualization in problem solving trains our minds and enhances our imaginations (Brain Connectivity, Emory University).

Identifying with characters we read about helps us understand that we’re not alone in our lives.  Pretty much all stages of life appear in fiction: aging and its problems, the quarrels and betrayals of youth, lovers’ crises like jealousy, break-ups, divorce, grief, illness, even loneliness.

There is no better feeling than sitting in a chair by a window or in front of the fireplace reading a book. The time is ours alone. If nothing else, reading makes us comfortable with being alone and that in itself is a valuable life lesson.

Reading can put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, kind of like meditation, and reading can bring the benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. A research study at the University of Sussex in 2009,revealed that  regular readers slept better, had lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers. Why is that so? Because reading fiction lets us escape from ourselves and vicariously enter the world of the characters, and that’s something we all need on occasion (Carol Fitzgerald, Book Report Network).

Reading fiction helps us disengage from life’s problems and slows our heart rates. Researchers have found that people “…desire to unplug from a constant stream of visual information.”

What’s interesting about reading stories is that we have the unique opportunity to share vicariously in the characters’ longings and frustrations, guess at their hidden motives, and track their encounters with friends, enemies, neighbours, and others around them. A readers, we engage in empathy as we step into a character’s skin. Fiction simulates reality, lets us identify with problems and successes, helps us prepare for our own interactions in life. As professor Keith Oakley, a University of Toronto Cognitive Psychologist, says, “… novels, stories and dramas can help us understand the complexities of social life”.

Fiction readers also tend to tolerate life’s uncertainties better. Stories often present characters with dilemmas for which there are no obvious solutions or, alternatively, a variety of solutions. Watching characters evaluate their choices, we evaluate with them. In that way, we understand how different circumstances present different problems. As readers, we become more tolerant of others, less judgmental.

Science Fiction, whether scientific or fantastic, presents ideas that go beyond known boundaries. It postulates that change is all around us. It shows us changed worlds and fosters the idea that we can live through change and survive. It presents social models, utopian or dystopian or something in the middle that’s more like us. Through its polar social visions, science Fiction helps us understand our place in our particular world and offers models of future possibility. That expands our perception of the changes that are possible.

Reading fiction  keeps our brains active: readers anticipate events and outcomes, piece together possibilities, and learn what characters learn. “It’s a mind stimulant”, says Jerome Boateng. “I love being exposed to ideas and being able to experience so many times, places and events.”

That’s not to say that non-fiction reading doesn’t have benefits. Of course, it does. We all read manuals, textbooks, newspapers, magazines like the Economist, articles on specific topics, but reading fiction gives us a time-out. We’re allowed to suspend our sensibilities and sink into the story.

Fiction contains tons of facts, only they’re packaged differently. It presents information in the guise of entertainment. Readers can relax and keep their minds open. The benefits of reading stories range from improving mental agility, processing information better, and acquiring a richer vocabulary. Reading fiction makes us more rounded as human beings and therefore happier.

 

 

Author: Gar Mallinson

Teaching literature and creative writing for more than thirty years, Gar Mallinson has developed a unique understanding of creating fiction.

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