The Surprising Power of Reading Fiction: 9 Ways it Make Us Happier and More Creative (2023)

“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.

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“…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.

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.

The Surprising Power of Reading Fiction: 9 Ways it Make Us Happier and More Creative (3)

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.

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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.”

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.

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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.

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.

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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:

The Surprising Power of Reading Fiction: 9 Ways it Make Us Happier and More Creative (5)

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!

FAQs

Does reading fiction 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.

Why is reading fiction good for us? ›

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 happy? ›

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.”

What is the power of fiction? ›

Fiction has a power that no other form of communication does: the power to insert you fully and completely in someone else's mind. It is a meld between the mind of the reader and the writer, and the minds of reader and character. When you read fiction, you're seeing the world through a character's eyes.

Is reading good for creativity? ›

It encourages creativity, which brings about new ideas. It also takes a huge part in innovation. Without imagination, people wouldn't be able to come up with new inventions and new ideas that help advance society. It also pushes discovery and understanding.

How does fiction improve creativity? ›

When you read fiction, the story expects you to fantasize, think, and use your imagination. You have to do this to grasp and comprehend the reasoning and the concepts put forward in the book. This “exercise” helps your brain to fantasize and create new ideas also in real life.

Why is fiction the best? ›

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.

Why is reading is important? ›

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 the importance of fiction? ›

Fiction can also help socialize children by teaching them important lessons about life and the way that our society and communities work. As characters in the stories they read ride school buses, sit in cafeterias, and make friends, they teach their young readers about how people may react to situations and challenges.

Is it good to read fiction? ›

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.

Why does reading make me happy? ›

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.

Why do we love fiction? ›

Our genes make play, and therefore reading fiction, enjoyable because they help us be interactive and manage our emotions. We do what we're good at, and we're naturally good at considering the perspectives of others and getting inside a new role.

How does fiction develop a person? ›

Fiction has the capacity to transport you into another character's mind, allowing you to see and feel what they do. This can expose us to life circumstances that are very different from our own. Through fiction, we can experience the world as another gender, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, profession or age.

What are 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.

What is creativity in reading? ›

CREATIVE READING IS DEFINED AS READING FOR IMPLIED AND INFERRED MEANINGS, APPRECIATIVE REACTIONS, AND CRITICAL EVALUATION. THE ACT OF CRITICAL READING GOES BEYOND LITERAL COMPREHENSION TO DEMAND THAT THE READER PRODUCE FRESH, ORIGINAL IDEAS NOT EXPLICITLY STATED IN THE READING MATERIAL.

How does reading help with stress? ›

Reading is proven to reduce stress and increase relaxation.

Reading books, particularly fiction, fully engages the mind and imagination. Any activity that possesses meditative qualities in which the brain is fully focused on a single task is proven to reduce stress and enhance relaxation.

How do I improve my imagination? ›

We like these 10 ways to increase imagination for better creative thinking by Operation Meditation:
  1. Open your mind to unexplored paths. ...
  2. Read more. ...
  3. Tell stories. ...
  4. Be curious. ...
  5. Don't be afraid to try something new. ...
  6. Expand your interests. ...
  7. Develop your talents. ...
  8. Spend time with creative people.

How does reading help in creative writing? ›

Reading is one of the most effective ways to improve your writing skills. Reading regularly exposes you to a variety of ideas that improve your writing. Reading also makes you familiar with different writing styles, expands your vocabulary, and helps you discover innovative ways to use words.

How does reading expand your mind? ›

READING CAN IMPROVE OUR MEMORY. When you read, you're engaging more than a few brain functions, such as phonemic awareness, visual and auditory processes, comprehension, fluency, and more. Reading jolts your brain into action, maintains concentration, and allows your mind to process the events happening before you.

How does reading improve your memory? ›

Reading helps in improving memory by increasing mental stimulation and allowing new neurons to be produced in the brain. The more one reads, the easier it becomes to recall certain things. This is because reading exercises the brain.

Why do people love reading? ›

There are many reasons why people like to read. Some might want to escape from reality when they indulge in a book, and they are alone you always have a companion at hand. Other people like to read for scientifically-proven benefits like the enhancement of your memory and knowledge.

Can we use real life in fiction? ›

Combining real-life experiences from different parts of your life can be a great way to create a new and successful fictional narrative. Real events have emotional resonance for writers, and combining separate stories into one is a great way of recontextualizing details and crafting a compelling narrative.

What makes fiction unique? ›

The simplest answer is that stories—fiction—must have four elements: a setting, characters, a plot, a theme. These certainly are the basics and each needs amplification—so much so that the first book in The Power Elements Of Fiction series deals with plot structure and the second deals with character development.

What are the 10 importance of reading? ›

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.

Why are books important 10 points? ›

We need books for learning, reading, writing etc. Books can refresh our mind and motivates us to be positive in our life. Books provide us knowledge about the things which are impossible to learn from anyone. Books include custom and duties which everyone should follow.

Is reading a skill or talent? ›

Basically, reading is the ability to look at and understand the meaning of the written words, letters, or symbols. But reading as a skill means much more than that. Reading is a complex process of identifying/recognizing written signs, comprehending the signs, and constructing a meaning of the signs.

How reading books can change your life? ›

It helps us relate to other people and encourages us to be kind and considerate of other people's feelings. As it turns out, reading can actually help improve empathy. When people read stories about other people's lives, it helps them develop the skills to understand the world through another person's perspective.

What is the value of reading? ›

What happens when students read? They train their brains, in essence. They are mentally stimulated, acquire knowledge and ideas, reduce stress in their lives, improve their vocabularies and memory, and develop keener analytical skills.

Can we learn from fiction? ›

Philosophers, psychologists, literary critics and humanities scholars have made broad claims for the positive impact of reading fiction: it gives us important insights into human psychology; it confers cognitive advantages; it enhances moral understanding and empathy; it is a valuable source of truth; and it makes us ...

What is the most important element of fiction? ›

Character is perhaps the most important element of fiction, as things must happen to someone or something in order for a story to progress. Not only is this crucial for story development, but as human beings, we read stories and enjoy stories because we can see ourselves in them, often through the characters.

What is the concept of fiction? ›

fiction, literature created from the imagination, not presented as fact, though it may be based on a true story or situation. Types of literature in the fiction genre include the novel, short story, and novella. The word is from the Latin fictiō, “the act of making, fashioning, or molding.”

How does reading make you a better person? ›

Readers reported being less stressed and less depressed, and having higher levels of self-esteem and a greater ability to cope with challenges.

What are the five elements of fiction? ›

  • The Five Elements. of. Fiction.
  • Characters.
  • Setting.
  • Point of View.
  • Theme.
  • Plot.
  • Plot.

Can reading change your personality? ›

So, we could agree that reading does have an impact on personality. To quote a BBC article: “people who often read fiction have better social cognition. That's to say they find it easier to work out what someone else is thinking and feeling.”

What is enjoyable about reading? ›

26% of those who had read a book in the past 12 months said that what they enjoyed most was learning, gaining knowledge, and discovering information. 15% cited the pleasures of escaping reality, becoming immersed in another world, and the enjoyment they got from using their imaginations.

What do you feel after reading a book? ›

The world has color and life you never saw until you read. You see words on a page that magically transform into worlds and people and voices and conflict. You step into imagination and forget that anything exists outside of it and the book in your hand. Reading makes me feel understood and makes me understand.

Why are stories so powerful? ›

They change how we think, they help us understand the world, and they impact our brains. Stories capture our attention, communicate meaning, and change people's behaviors. Stories have been around forever and bring us together. A story is one of the most powerful ways to communicate a message effectively.

Why are stories so important to humans? ›

Stories have the ability to help us learn about others and to find understanding and empathy for them and their situations. Whether we actually know the individual or not, hearing their story evokes feelings within us.

How does fiction influence society? ›

It shows us different perspectives through characters and why they may have these perspectives. This allows us to have a better understanding of human emotions and motives, therefore, allowing us to better comprehend other people and their opinions.

How does fiction make us better people? ›

Fiction Encourages Us to Constantly Shift Our Perspectives

Whilst we are reading; therefore, we are viewing life through their perspective — not ours. Living in a polarised society like ours, there is nothing better than stepping into the shoes of another person who we may not necessarily encounter in our own lives.

Does reading fiction make you a better person answers? ›

Various studies have shown an association between reading fictional stories and the development of empathy in children. In addition, one study showed that reading literary fiction enhances the ability to detect and understand other people's emotions, a crucial skill in navigating complex social relationships.

Does reading improve social skills? ›

Reading books enhances social problem-solving

In addition to learning empathy, books provide an endless supply of social interaction examples from which to learn. Scenes full of character dialogue show children effective – and ineffective – ways to handle conflict in a variety of situations.

Why it is called fiction? ›

The word fiction comes from the Latin word fictum, which means "created". This is a good way to remember what fiction is: if it has been created or made up by somebody, it is fiction.

What are the 2 types of fiction? ›

Genre fiction, also known as commercial fiction and popular fiction, is generally plot-driven and appeals to a broader audience. Literary fiction, on the other hand, tends to be more complex in terms of plotline and style and to communicate a deeper meaning to the reader.

What are 3 types of fiction? ›

Novels usually fall into three categories: literary fiction, genre fiction, and mainstream fiction.

How does fiction develop a person? ›

Fiction has the capacity to transport you into another character's mind, allowing you to see and feel what they do. This can expose us to life circumstances that are very different from our own. Through fiction, we can experience the world as another gender, ethnicity, culture, sexuality, profession or age.

Is it better to read fiction or nonfiction? ›

While reading anything has its benefits, specifically reading fiction can have a more positive effect on empathy than reading nonfiction. Learning facts and skills is important, but fiction has a greater impact on our socio-cognitive abilities and empathy which are equally as important.

Do books expand your imagination? ›

Reading is known to improve your imagination skills! Specific genres of books such as novels entice you to imagine different story scenarios. Fiction books often require that you imagine the characters and their world! Such activities stimulate parts of your brain associated with imagination.

What are the advantage of fiction? ›

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.

How does fiction make us better people? ›

Fiction Encourages Us to Constantly Shift Our Perspectives

Whilst we are reading; therefore, we are viewing life through their perspective — not ours. Living in a polarised society like ours, there is nothing better than stepping into the shoes of another person who we may not necessarily encounter in our own lives.

Does reading fiction make you a better person answers? ›

Various studies have shown an association between reading fictional stories and the development of empathy in children. In addition, one study showed that reading literary fiction enhances the ability to detect and understand other people's emotions, a crucial skill in navigating complex social relationships.

Why is reading is important? ›

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.

Can fiction teach us anything meaningful about the real world? ›

Although many works of fiction are not meaningful, this does not represent the entire fiction genre. Good works of fiction usually have many layers of meanings, and we would have to truly read and understand these works of fiction to learn meaningful things about the real world.

What is the effect of happy ending fiction? ›

A happy ending is an ending of the plot of a work of fiction in which almost everything turns out for the best for the main protagonists and their sidekicks, while the main villains/antagonists are defeated.

What influence does fiction have on an individual? ›

Two experiments showed that empathy was influenced over a period of one week for people who read a fictional story, but only when they were emotionally transported into the story.

How can I increase my imagination? ›

We like these 10 ways to increase imagination for better creative thinking by Operation Meditation:
  1. Open your mind to unexplored paths. ...
  2. Read more. ...
  3. Tell stories. ...
  4. Be curious. ...
  5. Don't be afraid to try something new. ...
  6. Expand your interests. ...
  7. Develop your talents. ...
  8. Spend time with creative people.

How does reading help with stress? ›

Reading is proven to reduce stress and increase relaxation.

Reading books, particularly fiction, fully engages the mind and imagination. Any activity that possesses meditative qualities in which the brain is fully focused on a single task is proven to reduce stress and enhance relaxation.

How does reading improve your memory? ›

Reading helps in improving memory by increasing mental stimulation and allowing new neurons to be produced in the brain. The more one reads, the easier it becomes to recall certain things. This is because reading exercises the brain.

What are 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.

How does fiction influence society? ›

It shows us different perspectives through characters and why they may have these perspectives. This allows us to have a better understanding of human emotions and motives, therefore, allowing us to better comprehend other people and their opinions.

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