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6 benefits of reading books, according to science

Updated: Dec 16, 2022

As far as pastimes go, reading books has stood the test of time. Even with TV shows, sports, and video games taking up a large chunk of our free time, reading continues to be a popular hobby. Even better, according to science, there are several health benefits of reading books, and the science never lies.

The average American reads about 12 books a year (this includes e-books and audiobooks). Nonfiction is more popular among adults, but don’t be fooled into thinking that the benefits of reading are tied to just nonfiction—fiction has just as much, if not more, to offer.

If there’s a book out there you’ve been meaning to read, perhaps this list will give you the nudge you need to pull it out and get lost in its pages for a while.

1. A workout for the brain

Reading books is a workout your brain loves, and you don’t even have to put on your running shoes or go to the gym to do it. Fuzzy socks and your favorite reading chair will do.

Just like going for a jog exercises your cardiovascular system, regular reading sharpens your cognitive skills and improves memory function. While there are no guarantees as we age, reading has been shown to slow down cognitive decline and help keep memory sharp for longer. Reading is a great way to keep your brain active, whether you’re 5 or 95.

2. Get smarter by the word

The more you read, the bigger your vocabulary. The bigger your vocabulary, the better your comprehension. The more you know, the more smart and articulate you’ll appear to your peers and employers—which matters more than you might think, especially when it comes to advancing in your career.

Reading also improves your writing skills. If you plan on communicating with other human beings, then writing is a skill you’ll use every day. Reviewing what others have written is good study for honing your own writing abilities, whether you use them primarily for social media and the occasional family newsletter or you’re deep in the process of writing a book.

3. Relaxation when you need it most

Reading isn’t just about getting smarter; it can be a wonderful escape, too, especially when you’re already stressed. We all need breaks from our regular lives every once in a while. Immersing ourselves in a story is one of the easiest—not to mention cheapest—ways to get a quick break from reality. (It’s a good cure for boredom, too!)

This “narrative absorption” goes beyond offering temporary enjoyment. The effects of a good reading session can last long after you’ve shut the book. It can put an end to a bad mood when nothing else can. Many read before bed because it helps them relax and unwind after a long day, leading to better sleep. (Stick with the old-fashioned paper books though, as reading off a screen can actually make it harder to fall asleep.)

Sometimes all we need to relax is to switch out our current thoughts for new ones. What better way to do that than by filling your head with someone else’s life story?

4. Bibliotherapy for mental health

Most people are aware that things like exercise and sleep support our mental health, but what about reading books?

An emerging field in this area is bibliotherapy, which is just what it sounds like: reading books (usually recommended by a therapist) as a way to help alleviate mental health challenges. Stepping into someone else’s shoes through the written word allows us to contemplate our lives in ways we might not have considered before and that feel safer than facing our problems head-on. Some research even shows that reading regularly can show long-term reduction in depression symptoms in adults, even years later. And for those who spend a lot of time alone, reading can mitigate social isolation, something a lot of people became familiar with during the early months of COVID.

More research is being done on how reading affects our mental health, but society has long known that there is power in stories. Books allow us to tap into an endless number of them, and as any reader will tell you, finding the right book at the right time can be life-changing.

5. Book nerds score high in empathy

Book lovers are often characterized as socially awkward individuals who would rather hang out with imaginary friends than interact with real people. But what people might not realize is that all that time spent reading actually increases social skills and empathy.

Reading literary fiction in particular activates the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is put to use in a lot of social situations. Reading a book is about the closest any of us will ever get to walking in someone else’s shoes, which is why readers tend to be more empathetic and are better able to read other people’s emotions. Having the ability to understand complex social relationships is key in forming lasting, meaningful relationships.

So the next time you see someone in a corner with a book, know that you may have spotted a potential good friend. And if you are that voracious reader, carry that title with pride—it contributes to your humanities education every day.

6. Add a deposit to your knowledge bank

Many adults fall into this camp: they read when they want to learn something or improve themselves in some way. Business and self-help books are big sellers in the publishing industry for a reason.

You can find a book about virtually any topic whenever the inspiration strikes you to improve a certain aspect of your life. Books are a reliable way to satiate curiosity—and raise interest in new subjects. Anything that helps you understand yourself better or teaches you something about the world around you adds to who you are. Good books are worth their weight in gold when they add to your own fountain of knowledge.

Reading is contagious. It’s science!

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a reader in possession of a good library must be in want of more books. The more you read, the more you’ll wish you could read. Reading to and around your kids means they’ll be more likely to read for fun on their own. If you talk about something interesting you’ve read with a friend, it may tempt them to track down a copy for themselves. Reading is the best kind of contagious activity because there are so many health benefits to it.

So find your favorite cozy spot, pull out a book, and get some reading done today.

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