Whether you’re expanding your imagination through the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien or increasing your knowledge of physics from Stephen Hawking, reading can bring you a plethora of benefits. Beyond education and entertainment, reading can promote longevity, restructure the brain, improve sleep, and more. While you might not be familiar with the lesser-known benefits of reading, you may already be experiencing them. Read on for our list of the top eight health benefits of reading; it might make you an even prouder bibliophile.
A prospective cohort study by the University of Michigan and the National Institute of Aging found that readers have a 20% reduced mortality risk compared to non-readers — but the type of reading material matters. The study found that reading books, as opposed to magazines or newspapers, gave the reader even more of a survival advantage simply because books convey information or themes in greater depth than periodicals.¹
The study theorizes that this survival increase is due to cognitive engagement during deep (or slow) reading. When you enter deep reading mode, you become immersed in the material. You might find yourself drawing comparisons to your own life, finding examples in your experiences, or applying details from earlier in the book to your current bookmark.¹
Experts say that cognitive engagement in reading improves our critical thinking, reasoning, and social skills, contributing to greater survival. The study also found that book reading reduces mortality for all, despite gender, health, wealth, and education. Aim for 30 minutes of reading per day to reap the benefits of cognitive engagement.¹
If you love reading fiction, you should know that your favorite books can help develop your emotional quotient (EQ) or emotional intelligence.² Where IQ involves logical reasoning, math skills, and comprehension, EQ involves identifying, evaluating, expressing, and controlling emotions and emotional meanings. Emotional intelligence is challenging to measure but is essential for leadership, teamwork, and successful relationships at home and work.³
People with high EQs tend to have self-discipline, self-awareness, and the ability to adapt to difficult or stressful situations. They exhibit optimism, kindness, generosity, and a strong sense of empathy, or being able to place themselves in another person’s shoes while reserving their judgment. They are creative in coming up with solutions to problems and keeping a cool head.
Reading fiction also can decrease your need for cognitive closure. This need can be described as the desire for a non-ambiguous conclusion, a black-and-white answer to a problem without any confusion or gray areas. People with a high need for cognitive closure struggle to accept different viewpoints and develop alternative theories or solutions, making them drawn to information that fits only their personal beliefs. Literary fiction can lower this need by presenting different ideas, situations, characters, and themes, allowing for discussion and critical thought on matters you wouldn’t encounter otherwise.²
Researchers at the University of Toronto found that reading literary fiction can boost your cognitive engagement while reducing your need for cognitive closure, which can help prevent a decline in creative and rational thought.² ²⁶
A certain level of cognitive decline is normal and expected in the aging process as long as it doesn’t interfere with daily life, activities, learning new skills, or creating new memories. Most people only experience minor memory issues, such as forgetting where objects are or having trouble recalling a name. However, these issues could worsen with time.⁴ Research shows it might be best to keep reading if you want to lower the risk of long-term decline and ensure your mental capacities are as sharp as possible when you are older.⁵
One study followed Taiwanese older adults for 14 years to measure the effect of a twice-weekly reading habit on their cognitive function. The study found that reading is protective against long-term cognitive decline, independent of a person’s education level.⁵ The results are similar to studies done in the U.S. and Italy, which found that reading, or any intellectually stimulating activity, reduced cognitive decline risk.⁵
Reading paper books, in particular, may also be better for memory and focus, as well as for those with eye strain and sleep issues. One Norwegian study found that story recall was stronger in participants who read print versions than those who read digital copies.¹¹
With electronics and screens present throughout almost every aspect of life, it’s no surprise that one in four people report having trouble sleeping. A seven-day randomized online trial surveyed 991 participants split into control and intervention groups. Researchers instructed the groups, before sleeping, to either not read or to read for 15-30 minutes. Both groups were allowed to use mobile phones and tablets but were not allowed to consume food or caffeine within one hour of sleeping. The trial found that reading before bed improved not only the quality of sleep but also the duration.⁶
Similarly, a Chinese study evaluating the effects of reading on older adults' sleep quality found that a healthy reading habit — one that didn’t cut into the recommended hours of sleep — was associated with longer sleep duration.⁷ However, exactly why reading helps with sleep is a mystery that requires more research. Some scientists hypothesize that it could be due to reduced stress and distraction from worries, such as how some insomnia patients use guided imagery and reading to calm their minds and reduce cognitive arousal. This practice aids in mitigating the mental load and allowing for a smoother transition to sleep.⁸
If you’re reading on a tablet or smartphone before bed, be aware of how blue light signals the brain to prevent the release of melatonin, the sleep hormone.⁹ ¹⁰ Consider switching to paper books for your nighttime reading, or use blue-light-blocking filters and lenses to reduce exposure.
When you immerse yourself in a book, every word counts. This immersion, called cognitive engagement, positively affects our vocabulary and improves reasoning, critical thinking, and focus.¹ If you’ve ever been lost in the pages of a thrilling novel and stumbled across a word you don’t recognize, your first instinct may be to look it up. After learning its definition, that new word is part of your vocabulary.
The effect seems to be more pronounced in children and teenagers. Studies have shown that teenagers who read for fun know 26% more words than those who don’t. Furthermore, those who came from families with many books knew 42% more words than teens who came from families with few books.¹³ The results imply that the opportunity to read is just as important as the ability to read. Teaching children to read won’t be as effective if they don’t have books at home or someone to read with or to them.¹²
An improved vocabulary from reading also goes hand-in-hand with strengthened writing skills. A 2019 study determined that reading for entertainment enhances writing skills and comprehension by offering readers a source of inspiration, expanding their vocabulary, and improving their grammar skills.¹⁴
Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found that intensive reading instruction prompts the creation of new white matter, which improves the brain’s internal communication. They noticed the phenomenon in young children between the ages of eight and ten who received 100 hours of instruction on improving their reading skills. Those who received the training had marked improvements in the brain’s white matter tracts, while those without training showed no visible changes in brain structure.¹⁵
Scientists are excited about the findings, as they have the potential to improve and supplement interventions for poor reading skills and as possible treatments for developmental disorders such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD).¹⁵ However, more research is necessary to determine whether intensive reading instruction has the same effect on the brains of adults.
It shouldn’t be surprising to learn that reading can boost your mood. After all, many people have a favorite book they’ve read multiple times simply because of the joy it brings them. However, aside from being a comforting distraction from the stresses of daily life, reading can alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and depression so effectively that it’s become a form of therapy called bibliotherapy.¹⁶ ¹⁷
Bibliotherapy can be used alongside other therapies, like Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), to treat trauma and addiction or to help people cope with difficult circumstances such as the death of a loved one.¹⁸ ¹⁹ ²⁰ The bibliotherapist assigns the patient a relevant book and, possibly, a workbook of exercises. The reading and exercises serve as a foundation for the patient’s treatment and help them relate their experience to the book. While this requires more effort on the patient’s part, therapists report more therapeutic engagement as a result.¹⁸
The good news is that you don’t need to consult a therapist to take advantage of these benefits. If you’re already in the habit of reading regularly, you may have noticed that books help with:¹⁶ ¹⁹ ²¹ ²²
Reading can trigger cognitive engagement, make us more content, and increase our sense of empathy toward others. A 2022 Turkish study found that reading helped high school students become more aware of others’ emotions and improved their problem-solving skills.²³ And a Japanese study in the same year found that reading effectively reduced feelings of social withdrawal.²¹
In the same way that books inspire us and provide solace from anxiety, stress, and depression, they can also motivate us to achieve our goals. Reading is powerful — we see its effect on how we relate to a character in a book or become motivated by an inspirational memoir. The improvements in critical thinking, problem-solving, and empathy we experience are not simply formal transactions between the white and gray matter in the brain but are tied to our emotional intelligence.²
Decreased stress and anxiety give us more time and mental energy to focus on our goals and become better individuals, parents, friends, and partners. Whether the goals include better health, a new skill or career, or a stronger relationship, there are books to help you accomplish them.
Reading can also boost your imagination and help you find new, creative ways to meet your goals.²⁴ A 2012 study found that habitual reading and writing correlated positively with creative thinking.²⁵ So when reading your favorite books, you might just be preparing for the future.
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 Chang, A. M., Aeschbach, D., Duffy, J. F., & Czeisler, C. A. (2015). Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(4), 1232–1237. Retrieved March 7, 2023, from https://www.pnas.org/doi/full/10.1073/pnas.1418490112.
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