10 benefits of reading a lot, according to psychology

by Roselle Umlas | July 16, 2024, 12:17 am

One of the best gifts I received as a child was the habit of reading. Even as a toddler, my parents made it a point to surround me with books – at first, sensory ones, then picture books, then short story books, and so on.

Reading a lot was just something ingrained in our whole family – I can’t imagine life without it! 

Turns out, reading brings with it many more benefits beyond the pleasure of getting lost in other worlds. 

Today, that’s what I’ll be sharing with you. Here are 10 psychology-backed benefits of reading a lot: 

1) It boosts brainpower

Well, this is a no-brainer, really, pun intended. You just get smarter when you make reading a habit. 

Research shows that reading makes many areas of the brain active. As we read, these areas work together by forming fast and efficient neural pathways.

The more that reading becomes a habit, the stronger these pathways become. In effect, we develop better skills for processing information, critical thinking, and many more. 

In other words, diving into a book is literally a workout for your mind – just as lifting weights makes you stronger, reading makes you more intelligent

2) It builds your vocabulary

That workout involves adding more and more words to your vocabulary. 

According to studies, “above average readers experienced a higher rate of vocabulary growth than did average readers.” 

This isn’t surprising, considering how reading a lot exposes you to a wide range of reading material. Above average readers usually have all sorts of genres in their repertoire, from fiction to nonfiction to poetry.

This diversity immerses them in different language styles and terminologies. Whether it’s a lyrical or a technical piece, they’re just more able to get into it. 

Which is also why, more often than not, they become interesting conversationalists. Given their rich vocabulary and language fluency, they can express themselves better than the average person. 

You could even expect a dramatic flourish here and there! 

3) It teaches you about nuance

People who read a lot also have the advantage of detecting subtleties and nuances. It’s all because of, as we discussed earlier, that stronger ability to process information. 

If you’re a reader, then you probably know that authors don’t always state things explicitly. Especially with literary fiction and poetry, there’s no spoon feeding. 

You’ve got to infer, use the clues or information given, and make those brain cells work to arrive at a plausible conclusion. 

That skill translates to real-life situations, too. For instance, a reader might be more easily able to pinpoint the real meaning behind someone’s flattering words. 

Or deduce that someone isn’t feeling comfortable by virtue of body language alone. 

It’s all because they know how to read between the lines, in both books and people!

Which brings me to my next point…

4) It makes you more empathetic

Aside from understanding nuance, reading a lot also trains you to identify with people. 

What do I mean by that? 

Well, when you read, especially novels, you get to step into the characters’ shoes. You get to see the world through their eyes. You feel what they feel…

…and wow, before you know it, you’re 100% emotionally invested. 

You may not have been on the island in “The Lord of the Flies”, but you feel just as much terror as Ralph and Piggy felt. 

You may be sitting in a cozy tufted chair, safe and sound in a first world country, but your mind is right in war-torn Kabul, and your heart just breaks with Pari’s eternal sense of emptiness in “And the Mountains Echoed.”

Do you see what I’m getting at? That’s empathy right there. That ability to identify and feel another person’s emotions even when you’ve never been in that exact same situation. 

So, by reading stories about different people, you’re learning about diversity and how to be more understanding and kind to those around you.

5) It sparks the imagination

Speaking of other worlds, reading a lot is fantastic for boosting creativity. You get exposed to other people’s imaginations, and it truly is fascinating. 

The World Literacy Foundation says, “Reading helps us practice imagination by letting the words describe a certain image while the reader manipulates the picture in the mind.”

For instance, when the first Harry Potter movie came out, I was just so ecstatic upon seeing it all unfold on the big screen. I exclaimed, “My god, it’s just like how I imagined it!”

All that to say, even without pictures, books can inspire us to create pictures in our heads. 

Not only that, it also trains us to be more playful with words. 

From Dr. Seuss’s delightfully whimsical words to Anthony Burgess’ strange yet fascinating slang in “A Clockwork Orange”, reading a lot shows us how creative we can get with language. 

6) It reduces stress

Does reading bring stress down? You bet. By a whopping 68% in fact, according to a University of Sussex study.

And I’m not just talking about mental relaxation. Reading actually brings about physical relaxation by lowering your heart rate and making your muscles less tense. 

(Maybe this is why I often tell my family, “Okay, please excuse me, I’m gonna go melt into a book now”…)

Anyway, here’s another fun fact: its relaxing effect works better and faster than any other method, like drinking a hot cup of tea or listening to music. That’s how powerful it is. 

I guess it’s because opening a door to a new world is the most effective way of shutting out your present, more stressful one. 

And so, because of its ability to shut down those stressors…

7) It gets you ready for sound sleep

Sleep and mental health experts have always emphasized that using phones before bedtime can interfere with our sleep. 

That’s because the blue light coming from the screens upsets our bodies’ ability to produce melatonin, the sleep regulation hormone. 

That’s where reading can come in really handy – it’s the perfect unplugged activity. 

As we’ve established earlier, it’s a huge stress reducer, so it’s a great way for your body to wind down, relax, and then drift straight off to sleep. 

I can vouch for this myself. When I compare the nights where I fell asleep to a Netflix movie on my phone vs a night where I simply read a book before nodding off, I find that the latter always comes out on top in terms of sleep quality. 

8) It teaches you to be okay with solitude

Well, no surprise there. Reading is a solitary activity. I remember when I first came across author Jonathan Franzen’s quote: 

“The first thing that reading teaches us is how to be alone.”

I felt so seen. Franzen might not have been a psychologist, but he certainly hit the nail on the head with this observation of human nature. 

Because it’s true – to be alone is a skill that seems to come much more easily to people who read a lot. 

I would even say it’s a need. I for one get cranky when I don’t get enough time for solitude

Just by the act of reading, we become comfortable in our own company. We learn how to be alone but not lonely

And far from being a disadvantage, I think that it’s a gift. Solitude is a necessity in this chaotic world. It’s what helps us get to know ourselves, identify what we want in life, form our values, and later on, stay true to these values. 

9) It helps lessen cognitive decline

Do you want to stay sharp in old age? Then make reading a habit as early as you can. 

The verdict is in – there’s a clear link between reading a lot and reduced risk of cognitive decline. 

After all, the brain is just like our muscles – it subscribes to the “use it or lose it” principle. 

10) It may even help you live longer

Finally, not only can reading a lot of books keep you sharp in old age, it can actually give you a longer life. 

A study in the Journal of Social Science and Medicine found that: 

  • A 20% reduction in mortality was observed for those who read books, compared to those who did not read books.
  • Book reading contributed to a survival advantage that was significantly greater than that observed for reading newspapers or magazines.
  • Compared to non-book readers, book readers had a 23-month survival advantage (that’s almost 2 years!).

That’s an amazing benefit, isn’t it? Who knew all those hours spent browsing bookshops for great titles would pay off in such a huge way? 

Final thoughts

As you can see, the benefits of reading are profound and far-reaching, literally going beyond the page. 

For many people I know, myself included, books have been an absolute life-saver. The world can be harsh and noisy, and books offer us a way to deal with it. 

In fact, for some, books have been their ticket out of poverty and other dire circumstances. 

So yes, it is powerful and magical, in more ways than one. More powerful even than any weapon in human history.  

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