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

“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.

benefits of fiction

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.

“…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.”

ann patchett quote

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.

reading and stress

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.

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.”

fiction for relationships

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.

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.

The website 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:

vocabulary size of readers

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.


reading for pleasure

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!

  • Matthew Day

    Thank you, Courtney, for this wonderful article! I clicked for Harry Potter but stayed for the fantastic insights on how and why I work the way I do. As a lifelong reader, I think it is fantastic you all have open access to Kindle books and understand the importance of picking up a good story once in a while.

    • The Harry Potter study was my favorite, so cool! And yes, I am mega grateful for Buffer for keeping me well stocked in books. Trying to read one a week this year; I’m on track so far!

  • Pamela Baumeister

    Great post. I love reading and it’s great to see how many benefits reading has on health and brain power! I am still amazed that reading for six minutes reduces stress 300% more than going for a walk! Whoa. I’ll be reading in six minute bursts throughout the day now.

    • I’d love to hear how that goes for you! I try to read every day, sometimes for hours but sometimes 6 minutes is all I can fit in! It feels great to know it can still provide some awesome benefits. :)

  • Interesting insights Courtney. Seems most of these don’t apply just to fiction. Most would be just as applicable to non-fiction also.

    • Heya Ben, thanks for checking this one out! Yup, you’re right–a few are crossovers. It was really neat to discover the the empathy, diversity and vocabulary elements that are specific to fiction!

  • Luz Iglesias

    I was dealing with Fiction Reader’s Guilt this morning after a weekend of Moby Dick and the Christmas Carol. Thanks for this, Courtney!

    • Oh wow, I thought maybe fiction reader’s guilt was just me! Really glad to hear I’m not alone! We can improve together. Great choices, by the way!

      • Luz Iglesias

        Definitely not alone. Great posts. Keep em coming.

  • Emily E. Steck

    Reading fiction is my first love. I’d love to be a part of a Buffer book club somehow!

  • Tracey

    I’m the Executive Assistant for a distributed startup, but I’m also a novelist and poet, so I love seeing a tech company that appreciates literature. :) I’ve been trying to figure out a way to encourage a reading culture in a distributed company, so this is a timely blogpost. Thanks!

    Book Week Scotland is actively promoting reading in the workplace, so this might be a useful read as well:

    • Wow, what a neat combination of vocations! Thanks a bunch for the great resource!

  • What a beautiful post Courtney. Thank you for sharing. Signed: fiction book reader :)

  • David Le

    Great post with all the studies. Nice to see that reading books is no longer declining.

  • I also have to read, even if only for a couple minutes, before bed like Joel. Sometimes I’ll be so tired, I fall asleep reading and wake up only when my Kindle hits my forehead. :/ But I still love reading. Great stats and studies you found btw!

    • Haha, I am familiar with the Kindle-on-the-forehead level of tiredness too. Way to make reading part of your routine!

  • Oh, I’m so happy you shared this, Courtney! I’ve long been an advocate of fiction reading for people of all ages and I’ve maintain the position that if you could only read one genre — fiction or non-fiction — I would choose fiction every time. I recently started a YouTube channel where I talk about all the books I read, so I’ve been having a lot more conversations with people about it recently, and it really makes me sad to realize just how many of my friends don’t read all and, of those who do, very few of them read fiction on a regular basis.

    I kind of laughed when I read the Tim Ferriss quote about reading fiction before bed instead of non-fiction. I always opt for non-fiction because I know I’ll only read a chapter or two at most, whereas with fiction, I can easily get sucked in and stay up until 2am until the book is done!

    • Oh my gosh, same here! Sometimes I can literally feel my heart racing as I’m reading in bed and I think, “That’s probably not good for my chances of sleep.” It’s worth it for a great book, though! :)

      • Definitely! I had to force myself to put down the book last night since I knew I had to be up early.

  • Sylvia

    This post is so affirming! I really enjoy reading fiction and non-fiction, I just get sucked into a different world. It truly is like living different lives – a form of escapism! But I have also definitely benefited from reading by being able to see things from a different perspective, learn from other people’s experiences, and use those lessons to apply to my own situation. It’s easier to give people benefit of the doubt or try to understand their point of view when you default to, “there must be more to this story…”

  • Johnny Duncan

    I have read lots of fiction over the years, from Tolkien to Ray Bradbury. I love the current writing team of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child! They incorporate lots of cool history, science, and way cool “Museum” stuff that is both interesting and just plain darn fun!! And they weave a good yarn!! Try “The Cabinet of Curiosities” on a Dark and Stormy Night!

  • Susan Farris

    For me, reading is a powerful form of self-care. Taking the time to do something I really enjoy makes me feel calmer and at peace with the world even when everything else is chaotic. I don’t get a lot of space to myself so reading helps me find a retreat in my “headspace.”

  • gabbiehall

    Cool post! I find reading fun and relaxing. Especially when I’ve had a bad day and need to escape from my world for a while. It is my happy space when I read any book. It makes me happy. It is a bonus that I learn something from each book. I try to read every evening because I’m in the midst of third year at university and need a way to relax!

  • What I found interesting is the point that when you read about doing something, the same neurons in your brain fire as if you’re actually doing the thing! I came across this point elsewhere as well. I usually read books cover to cover non-stop, so this probably explains why, when I finish, then it sometimes takes time for me to realise that I’m not the main character!

    • S_D_G

      Then compared to watching movies, which one would have more neuron activity?

  • mahendra madavaram

    Nice Post Courtney, currently i am reading “One Indian Girl” by Chethan Bhagath

    • Rishi Verma

      May God be with you…

      • mahendra madavaram

        Hahaha I also felt same after finished reading it

  • Adam Smith

    Suprising? I’d say it’s pretty obvious! Disengagement is one that stuck out to me – Disassociation and Escapism i a large part of it. It’s like how we get suck in ruts and can only get out of them from outside influence. If we dissasociate from ourselves WE’RE the outside influence!

  • Katts Xec

    This article has filled me up the right amount of chivalry I needed to get out there and put forth my thought that ‘fiction is not a waste of time’ but ‘fiction is a time escape’ for every person who wants to feel relieved in their lives, well at least for the time being. thanks for the amazing post :)

    • Love that!! Thank you so much for reading (this post!) :D

  • Morgan Frye

    This is a great quote. Do you know any more articals on this subject?


    Nicely written article, congratulation! I have to say, from my own experience, books can help overcome the depression. I’m not sure about clinical depression, but I was feeling depressed by lack of accomplishments in life. And that’s when I decided to start reading book (two years ago) so I can improve my knowledge which will lead me to better career opportunities in life.

    And over time I did learn a lot of new, useful things in life. I do mostly read business and self-development/improvements books, I don’t focus on reading fiction books etc. Although I have to admit that I do get depressed from time to time (which is normal,) but it’s not where near how to used to be depressed and miserable for weeks, even whole month. Now I’m back on my feet within day or two.

    I hope that you will not mind if I share link of my blog here. I have a book blog where I write reviews and summaries of books that I’ve read. I hope that will be helpful for other people to find good books to read and learn from.

    • Thanks for sharing your story with us!

  • David Colello

    Really loved this post, Courtney! I’m working with getting kids and parents to bond through reading. Your article lays out the benefits of fiction so well, and I agree on every point you mention. Right now I’m reading Mona Lisa Overdrive by Gibson (my style is definitely science fiction, lol).

  • argy-bargy

    “Do not read non-fiction prior to bed, which encourages projection into the future and preoccupation/planning.”

    This is a stupid statement. Everyone is different. Additionally, why does he assume that all nonfiction encourages this kind of thinking? It depends on what the nonfiction is about! I read fiction and nonfiction of all kinds in bed and have found both to be equally effective at relieving stress.

  • Richard Stillman

    As a Head of English at an elite school in England, Winchester College, I can reinforce that reading is crucial in developing empathy, vocabulary and intellect. Great article, thanks.

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