Reading fiction offers many benefits during the pandemic
This has been a stressful year for many around the world, particularly due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and its associated social and economic impacts. As people look for ways to cope with stress — with a particular need for inexpensive coping strategies that do not take up a lot of time — reading fiction is a great option.
There is extensive evidence for the value that reading fiction provides to individuals and societies. Psychology studies demonstrate that reading literary fiction has multiple positive effects, including increasing brain connectivity; improving empathy; enhancing readers’ ability to recognize nuanced emotions, understanding and responding to social situations, and considering different perspectives; and strengthening their understanding of other people’s motivations. These benefits particularly apply to those who become very engaged when reading fiction — who lose themselves in a story.
Other studies suggest that fictional stories featuring characters that have a different background from the reader can help to diminish prejudice. When readers immerse themselves in a story featuring characters of a different race, religion, nationality, class, or who otherwise have different life experiences, they are more likely to empathize and to be open to different perspectives. While nonfiction about different people can also help, fiction allows a reader to feel personally involved and to see the world through a character’s eyes, often having a greater effect than reading nonfiction alone.
Research also has highlighted that reading fiction helps to build skills that are useful in society and business. Reading fiction expands vocabulary and stimulates creativity. A Harvard Business Review article in March noted that reading fiction enhances desirable skills that are needed in the workplace, such as empathy, creativity, communication skills, “an expanded ability to understand and respond to multiple competing viewpoints,” and other emotional intelligence skills. These skills can contribute to better decision-making abilities.
However, part of the point to reading fiction is that it should be fun. While people often read nonfiction and self-help books to expand their knowledge and sharpen their skills, they usually read fiction to mentally escape from daily cares or indulge a passion for a fiction genre, such as mystery, historical fiction or science fiction. In 2020, the entertainment and health benefits of fiction seem at least as important as the value that fiction offers for developing specific skills and cognitive abilities.
There is ample evidence to support the idea that reading fiction is a great way to combat stress for many people. Some studies have found that reading equals or exceeds activities such as yoga and taking a walk for helping people to relax. Reading fiction allows people to focus on something other than their own concerns and emotions for a while. While reading can be relaxing, the brain is actually working hard and can feel more focused.
Reading offers other health benefits, too, though it can be difficult to assess whether reading fiction or nonfiction makes a difference. Multiple studies have found that reading, in general, can help slow the cognitive decline that comes with age and even can contribute to extended lifespans. Reading also can improve sleep; importantly, this does not apply to electronic devices that emit light but rather to reading books or magazines in print, which can improve sleep quality.
This all suggests that reading fiction is a useful way to relax and improve wellness during the pandemic. Book sales in some countries, including the US and UK, went up during the pandemic, despite closures that negatively affected some book shops earlier in the pandemic. Clearly, many people have increased their reading during a time when there are fewer activities available outside of the home.
At the same time, anecdotal evidence also suggests that some people are reading less during the pandemic. Many people feel that they do not have time for reading fiction; this is particularly true for parents whose children are receiving education online due to school closures and who must balance jobs, childcare, teaching, plus all the usual work of life. Some people also feel that they lack the concentration needed to focus on a novel or other piece of fiction, as they feel that their attention is torn between family needs, jobs, politics, and more.
Research suggests that even 30 minutes of reading can help to ease stress.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
For those with time, delving into fiction can be a wonderful way to escape daily concerns, relax, and travel to other places in the imagination (with no COVID-19 exposure risks). It can help reduce feelings of isolation. In the age of social media, many people can connect with others interested in the same types of books. Readers can gain all of this while also improving their emotional intelligence and brain connectivity.
For those who feel that reading fiction is a luxury they cannot afford right now, that is completely understandable. Research suggests that even 30 minutes of reading can help to ease stress, so reading remains one of the most time-efficient and cost-effective ways to manage stress. For those who are struggling to sleep due to disrupted routines, increased stress, and constant demands for their attention, a short read at bedtime might help improve sleep — and quality sleep is one of the best ways to boost the immune system and sharpen mental focus.
- Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 16 years of experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today. Twitter: @KBAresearch