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Reading makes us happy. The neuroscience of reading, empathy, and happiness

Reading makes us happy. The neuroscience of reading, empathy, and happiness

Data from all around the world reveals that reading enjoyment is more important for children’s educational success than their family’s socio-economic status

Data from all around the world reveals that reading enjoyment is more important for children’s educational success than their family’s socio-economic status.[1] But scientific evidence shows that reading for pleasure also contributes to our happiness and well-being.

According to an accurate description of reading for pleasure, this habit is 

‘oriented towards finding personal meaning and purpose and is related to the human need to make sense of the world, the desire to understand, to make things work, to make connections, engage emotionally and feel deeply.’[2]

But reading may also benefit the quality of our social relationships which is also a predictor of happiness. The reason why reading benefits our relationships is that high-quality fiction that requires the reader’s intellectual engagement enables readers to develop empathy.[3] Indeed, following the point of view of a character in detail can cultivate the reader’s understanding and empathy towards them. This understanding of how someone may be feeling under certain circumstances can then be transferred to the reader’s social relationships.  

High-quality fiction that requires the reader’s intellectual engagement enables readers to develop empathy

An article recently published in the New Yorker discusses in depth the relationship between reading and empathy.[4] As the article reports, a study published in the Annual Review of Psychology in 2011, showed, using fMRI brain scans, that the same neurological regions in our brain are activated when we read about an experience as the ones stimulated when we go through that experience ourselves.[5] Similar results were reported by other studies, leading to the conclusion that people who read a lot of fiction tend to be better at empathising with others. 

It seems then that fiction works as a kind of simulation through which we can entertain a variety of experiences and outcomes and learn from them without dealing with them in real life. [6] 

Of course, there’s also the counter-argument that the pleasure we get out of reading comes exactly from the fact that we don’t have the moral obligation to empathise with the characters in the same way that we do with real people, simply because we are fully aware of the fact that what they go through is entirely fictional. [7]  

Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable calm state, similar to meditation

But even if that’s the case, reading can still make us happy -- if not through improving our social skills and relationships, through the pleasure of immersing ourselves into a narrative and the opportunity it gives us to escape reality for a bit.

Indeed, reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable calm state, similar to meditation. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.[4]

So regardless of whether it makes us more empathetic or not, it seems that reading undeniably makes us happier!

Regardless of whether it makes us more empathetic or not, it seems that reading undeniably makes us happier! 

References

[1] Clark, C. & Rumbold, K. (2006) Reading for pleasure: A research overview. London: National Literacy Trust.

[2] Cremin, T. (2007). “Revisiting reading for pleasure: Delight, desire and diversity.” In: Goouch, Kathy and Lambirth, Andrew eds. Understanding Phonics and the Teaching of Reading: A Critical Perspective. Berkshire, UK: McGraw Hill, pp. 166–190.

[3] Kidd, C,D. & Castano, E. (2013) Reading literary fiction improves theory of the mind. Science, 342, 377-380.

[4] https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/can-reading-make-you-happier 

[5] Mar, R. (2011) The Neural Bases of Social Cognition and Story Comprehension. Annual Review of Psychology, 62: 103-134.

[6]Mar, A. R. & K. Oatley. (2008) The Function of Fiction is the Abstraction and Simulation of Social Experience. Perspectives on psychological science, 3(3): 173-192.

[7]Keen, S. (2007). Empathy and the Novel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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