In an age of YouTube channels, Instagram feeds, podcasts, and livestreams, it’s easy to overlook the benefits of reading or make the time to read more.
But it turns out that devoting significant time to reading can have radical impacts on your physiology, mental health, intelligence, and social skills. What’s more, reading also promises big returns on your ability to navigate uncertainty and strategize in the face of hardship, making it one of the principal pieces of advice from top-ranking entrepreneurs.
In general, the more you read, the more you know. Really, reading – including reading more books – should be one of the top activities of any serious lifelong learner.
So, in this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the benefits of reading, how to read more, and reading strategies for doing it better. Below you’ll find what leading research is saying about e-readers, stress reduction, home libraries, emotional intelligence, and the neuroscience of a good novel!
3 Key Benefits of Reading
If “superfoods” designate special high-nutrient comestibles, then reading might be considered a “superskill” for its manifold benefits. As an activity that engages your intellect, emotional awareness, and neural plasticity, it is a one-of-a-kind workout for your body and your wellbeing. Here are some of its research-backed benefits.
1. Reading Boosts Your Well Being
Forget all the questionable supplements and unproven practices that claim to improve your life and cure what ails you. Reading is a much simpler and more time-tested approach.
According to Dr. Josie Billington of the University of Liverpool’s Centre for Research into Reading, reading is a potent remedy for many of life’s afflictions, including the prevention of stress and depression, and even leading to a decrease in the likelihood of dementia.
Beyond these benefits, Billington emphasizes reading as a resource for “richer, broader, and more complex models of experience, which enable people to view their own lives from a refreshed perspective and with renewed understanding.” Reading more, of course, ups the “dose” on these benefits.
Alongside these findings was the CEO of The Reading Agency, Sue Wilkinson, who echoed Billington’s sentiments by underscoring that those who read regularly “are on average more satisfied with life, happier, and more likely to feel that the things they do in life are worthwhile.”
Finally, Billington highlights reading as a skill that follows you out into the world, impacting your social skills, cultural literacy, and ability to recognize and transcend prejudice:
In addition to enhancing willingness and ability to communicate with others, reading helps promote respect for and tolerance of others’ views. Readers have a stronger and more engaged awareness of social issues and of cultural diversity than non-readers: their template of what the world is, is widened, and their place within it feels more secure.
2. Reading Builds Empathy
Keeping Billington’s comments in mind, it should not be surprising that reading can function as an exercise in expanding one’s awareness and respect for others—something researchers have described as “embodied semantics.”
In 2013, a team of neuroscientists and public health specialists at Emory University contributed to ongoing research tracing the effects of reading on various brain activity. Their findings connected the act of following a story—in this case, Robert Harris’s Pompeii—with a phenomenon called “embodied semantics” in which neural activity trigged by reading mimics bodily sensations. In their own words:
It is plausible that the act of reading a novel places the reader in the body of the protagonist, which may alter somatosensory and motor cortex connectivity.
The implications of such findings are vast and still being studied, but many seem to be reaching the conclusion that reading significantly contributes to empathizing with another’s experience. And how could any of us disagree? The act of slowing down to track an unfolding story that prioritizes the subjectivity of a specific character has functioned as a powerful tool for broadening one’s worldview and tolerating others since time immemorial. It may be one of the most natural approaches we have for combating the many types of bias that impact our lives.
3. Reading Helps You Live Longer
To top it all off, reading can even add years onto your life. In 2017 three researchers from Yale University, School of Public Health published a short report entitled “The Survival Advantage of Reading Books,” which garnered attention from the likes of The Guardian and Harvard Medical School.
Observing a sampling of 50+ adults with varying reading habits over a period of 12 years, they were able to determine that—regardless of age, sex, race, education, comorbidities, self-rated health, wealth, marital status, and depression—reading (specifically, reading books, as opposed to newspapers, magazines, etc.) led to a measurable increase in life expectancy and a 20% reduction of morality-related health risks.
So, once again, the benefits of reading are far from trivial – and, as this study suggests, reading more books may offer some of the strongest benefits.
The Science of Reading and Lifelong Learning
By now, the benefits of reading should be clear: reading does wonders for us and our goals. So, you may be wondering how to read more. Here are five tips based on what the science of reading has to say about how to best incorporate reading into your life as a rewarding lifelong learning habit.
1. Remember the basics
Some of the basic strategies for turning literacy into a lifelong passion for learning are forgotten once we leave grade school behind. But many of the methods our teachers used with us at a young age are just as relevant to our reading habits and overall growth as adult learners.
According to the doctoral candidate and certified teacher Sarah Parks Duncan, there are a few key tactics for helping cultivate a love for reading that stands the test of time.
To begin, give yourself choices. Don’t confine yourself to that one 800-page tome you agreed to read as part of your New Year’s resolution. Allow yourself to explore different options and follow what genuinely captures your attention and curiosity. If being forced to read didn’t work for you as a 5th grader, chances are it won’t work now.
From here, consider reading aloud or listening to others read. With reference to studies conducted on middle school and high school students, Duncan stresses this tactic for its positive impact on intrinsic motivation as well as “improved vocabulary, listening comprehension, visualization ability, and syntax and usage understanding.” Of course, many of us don’t have the luxury of joining our peers in a classroom to listen to a teacher read, so something like an audiobook might be a helpful substitute.
Finally, Duncan recommends discussion. If you can socialize with others about what you’re reading, there are plentiful opportunities to build connections between the reading material, your life, and the experiences of others. So, consider joining a book club or attending events at a bookstore. Not only has this been shown to lead to a higher intrinsic motivation to continue reading, but it doubles as a way of building community through shared growth.
2. Paper over screens
We all have that friend who likes to complain about e-readers and the irreplaceable experience of holding a physical book in your hands. Well, according to research compiled by the Scientific American, this friend of ours may have a point.
Understanding how reading on paper is different from reading on screens requires some explanation of how the brain interprets written language,” writes Ferris Jabr. “We often think of reading as a cerebral activity concerned with the abstract—with thoughts and ideas, tone and themes, metaphors and motifs. As far as our brains are concerned, however, text is a tangible part of the physical world we inhabit.
Following this logic, reading that occurs on a digital screen can actually impair comprehension because of the tactile experience and spatial orientation that a physical page provides, Jabr says. While largely subconscious, it turns out we rely on many of the sensory details of reading something that we hold in our hands (the page corners, the margins, the length of a chapter, the spatial mapping of a specific paragraph in relation to the rest of the page or the rest of the book, etc.). Our brain treats all of these things as information-rich guide posts that allow for a crucial visualization process happening just below awareness.
Now, I’m sure you’re thinking: “But my tablet actually resembles a book with its margins, section headings, and page-turning interaction!” Drawing on survey data and input from several experts, Jabr asserts that all this digital mimicry still poses significant cognitive hurdles:
Although e-readers like the Kindle and tablets like the iPad re-create pagination—sometimes complete with page numbers, headers and illustrations—the screen only displays a single virtual page: it is there and then it is gone. Instead of hiking the trail yourself, the trees, rocks and moss move past you in flashes with no trace of what came before and no way to see what lies ahead.
So next time you’re squinting your eyes and craning your neck to power through that next chapter on your Kindle, consider investing in the physical hardcover as a way to get the full benefits of reading. At the very least, this will ensure that the lessons you garner from your reading will take on more personal associations and probably stick with you longer.
3. Read more right before bed
We see it in movies all the time. It’s late at night and someone is sitting upright in bed with a book in their lap. The implicit message we get is that the opportune time to read is right before we sleep.
As it happens, taking in new information before bed does have concrete benefits when it comes to memory. The psychologist Jessica Payne of the University of Notre Dame conducted a study confirming sleeping immediately after learning new information has a significant impact on the quality of one’s memory. By testing a group of students to retrieve information at different times of the day, Payne found a significant spike in retrieval when subjects were given a full 24 hours between learning the information and being evaluated.
While this corroborates what many of us already know about the impacts of sleep on our learning process, it’s a good tool for going beyond low-stakes pleasure reading and concentrating on long-term retention. Payne relayed this rather succinctly to the Notre Dame News: “In some sense, you may be ‘telling’ the sleeping brain what to consolidate.”
4. Keep it informal
In 2019, several Finnish researchers found that formal and informal learning has different impacts on our individual growth. They defined the former as the kind of learning that transpires in an institutional setting or under the guise of extreme structure (think school or receiving training for a certification). They defined the latter as the educational ways in which we voluntarily spend our daily leisure time (for example, writing, using technology, and most notably, reading).
Drawing on a sample size of over 61,000 individuals from 16 to 64 years old across 13 European countries, they conducted a survey to gauge correlations between the different kinds of learning-related behaviors, or “learning ecologies,” that the sample population participated in and their problem-solving abilities. What they found was that informal learning was a far better indicator of problem-solving skills, thus shedding light on the importance of the lifelong learning that transpires at home and off the clock.
What readers of all kinds can glean from this researcher is that sometimes the most rewarding and intellectually stimulating learning can happen outside the classroom or other intensely rule-bound environments. Moreover, the research shows that it is far more important that reading be integrated into our life as a general lifestyle rather than a strict routine—something we regularly return to for personal satisfaction, much like going on a hike or catching up with friends.
5. Build a personal library
This one builds on many of the strategies already covered. It comes from the findings of several sociologists and their recent article, “Scholarly culture: How books in adolescence enhance adult literacy, numeracy and technology skills in 31 societies.” As you might guess, the research pulled on international data to untangle the role of books across diverse cultural contexts.
What the researchers found won’t surprise you: there is ample evidence supporting the benefits of reading when it comes to problem-solving skills and technological savvy.
But how were they able to quantify this kind of behavior at such a macro scale? Well, their research isolated something they termed “book-oriented socialization,” which was really just a fancy way of denoting whether subjects were exposed to a home library or not, especially at a young age. It was this kind of casual “scholarly” environment, especially when meshed with the social dynamics of family life, that they found to be linked with cognitive abilities not easily reducible to educational or occupational training.
While the sociologists themselves admit that there is still much to be investigated before reaching any rigorous conclusions about the psychosocial effects of home libraries, their inferences about the value of a home library is hard to refute. Beyond mere access to a collection of literature, home libraries offer the exact kind of informal learning environment highlighted above, where spontaneously perusing a diverse set of knowledge ignites curiosity and builds new mental connections.
What’s more, home libraries bring reading into a social context, where learning easily segues into discussion and shared meaning-making as touched on above. In all these ways, a library in your home paves the way for many forms of growth, both communal and individual.
Reading as “Self-help in disguise”
If all else fails when it comes to forming a reading habit, it may be helpful to remember this bit of wisdom from Shane Snow, an entrepreneur and journalist known for his coverage of business leaders and productivity hacks. Having conducted numerous interviews over the course of his career, he cites reading as paramount to personal and professional success.
More specifically, he points to the unique benefits of reading biographies and autobiographies. They represent a great place for many of us to start, an invitation to learn from someone whose life has gone so poorly or so well that someone decided it was worthy of a whole book. As he puts it, reading biographies tends to be “self-help in disguise.”
So next time you find yourself in a bookstore or staring at that pile of paperbacks you told yourself you were going to read one day, consider picking up a biography first. It may turn out to be enormously relatable, and deserving of a light skim or a reread—preferably before bed.