When looking for “solutions” to today’s mental health crisis in the United States, particularly among the millions of men who are checking out of society, reading fiction may not immediately come to mind. However, a new article from Psychology Today argues that reading fiction is “essential” for today’s men. The author of the article, psychologist Jett Stone, focuses on men in part because today’s literary market is largely geared towards women, and fiction and femininity are often closely associated. Nonetheless, he believes that reading fiction can benefit both women and men. He writes,
Recent research indicates that reading fiction fosters critical thinking by presenting ideas subtly and in more roundabout ways than nonfiction. One study of adolescents found that frequent fiction readers possessed more robust emotional vocabularies, and another showed a link between experience reading fiction and recognizing complex emotions.
Other data suggests that understanding characters in fiction parallels real-world social skills in ways that nonfiction does not, and a reader’s ability to become immersed in a story predicts levels of empathy. These data align with fiction writer and cognitive psychologist Keith Oatley’s body of work on the links between reading fiction and increased empathy.
Reading fiction may seem solitary, but it’s fundamentally social: Studies reveal how reading fiction activates the same brain areas that process smells, textures, and body movements, creating an experience that mirrors “real-life social encounters.”-Jett Stone, Why Reading Fiction Is Essential for Today’s Men | Psychology Today
Reading a complicated narrative defies instant gratification, which in today’s digitized culture, is as abundant as oxygen. For me, the distraction of my iPhone has probably been the main obstacle to reading (and writing) in an in-depth manner. However, the rewards of this kind of concentration are worth it, according to Stone. When we forget about instant reward and attend imaginatively to characters in a compelling story, we find our minds enriched and our capacity for empathy strengthened.
One thing I’d add to Stone’s assessment is that while clearly reading good fiction has these benefits, they are byproducts — reading in order to secure the benefits instead of simply reading for its own sake could backfire. Or maybe it’s better said that the benefits of reading are all derivative of simply delighting in a story well-told. At the end of the day, though, the point stands: reading fiction is good for you.