Would you believe that reading books like Moby Dick and The Lord of the Rings can help improve our brains and creativity? No expensive course, or attaching yourself to the electricity grid for a boost. Just open a good book to improve mind and mood.

My husband died in June 2023, and I wouldn’t have got through those first months of grief without the numerous books I read. They not only offered respite, they put me in touch with some feelings I’d been afraid of but could cope with inside a story.

Studies have found that reading fiction can have a profound impact on our well-being, from improving cognitive abilities to reducing stress and anxiety. Reading fiction is enriching and valuable. Think about the time you were reading and realised you’d jumped forward in time by three hours, totally immersed in the character’s’ journey. And we’re not talking about wasted time.

Read on and we’ll explore 5 of the key benefits of reading to improve mind and mood, with some popular examples that will give you good reason to sit back and open that book.

Reading improves mind and mood

1. Enhancing empathy and understanding of others

We are talking about emotional intelligence – being aware of our and others emotions and being able to understand and manage those feelings. Stuff that makes for more positive, deeper engagements and relationships with others, which in turn can improve our mental health.

Fiction can increase empathy and emotional intelligence in several ways.

We can often experience the world through the eyes of another person or character. When we are immersed in a story, we can see different perspectives, emotions, and experiences, allowing us to develop a deeper understanding and empathy for others.

Fictional characters are often complex and multidimensional, with a range of struggles, motivations and desires. Think Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or Michael Corleone in the Godfather saga. When we read about characters like these we have to consider their experiences and emotions within the story, and this can help us develop empathy and awareness.

In their business training Christine Seifert and Russell Clayton in 2021 gave students fiction to read and found the stories led to readers expressing empathy towards some of the characters.

If you’ve read J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye did you feel quite emotional when Holden is with his sister at the zoo? We feel how much he loves and wants to protect her.

Our brains are able to simulate the experiences of the characters and respond in a way that’s similar to how we would respond to the emotions of real people in our lives.

In reading fiction we can practice empathy and emotion in an engaging and safe way. We can develop a deeper understanding of others, increase our emotional awareness, and become more attuned to the subtleties of human emotion and experience.

Classic examples also include To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The Color Purple by Alice Walker.

2. Improving cognitive abilities

Reading fiction can improve brain functions like memory, attention span and critical thinking. Engaging with the story – complex characters and plots – we are required to use imagination and analysis to follow how the story progresses.

Engaging the imagination: When we read fiction, we imagine the settings, characters and events, creating mental images and scenes. It can improve our physical awareness of ourselves and what’s going on around us, as well as our creativity.

Increasing vocabulary: Fiction often has more varied speech and structure than non-fiction or everyday conversation. We can learn new words and ways of putting them together.

Improving memory: To follow a story we need to remember characters, settings, and events. This can help our memory and ability to retain information. It can also improve our working memory – that’s the day-to-day brain function that helps you remember what you had for breakfast this morning, and how you made it.

Enhanced critical thinking: The complex characters and plots of some novels can get us thinking about relationships and what motivates the characters. This can improve how we analyse, understand, and solve problems.

Building confidence through reading
Reading improves the mind

Growing empathy and perspective: We’ve already looked at how fiction can help us understand and empathise with others, and this can improve our understanding of other people’s perspectives, an important skill in emotional and social intelligence. Research has also shown that reading fiction can activate the same neural pathways in the brain involved in processing real life emotions and interactions. 

Diana I. Tamir’s study in 2015 ‘Reading fiction and reading minds’ found that the simulation of social situations in fiction could increase real life social perception.

So, reading fiction can impact how our brains function, and help develop imagination, speech, memory, critical thinking, and empathy. A better equipped brain can improve mind and mood

Whether you prefer classic or contemporary, there are tons of books out there that can give you an immersing and intellectually stimulating reading experience.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez uses a lot of symbolism through colour and images, and blurs ordinary with extra-ordinary.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton is a high concept murder mystery, with twists and jumps designed to keep our minds very active.

So, we have a greater understanding of others and a better equipped brain. How else does fiction improve mind and mood?

3. Reducing stress and anxiety

Reading fiction can help calm the mind and body. The right book can take us to a different world and time. What a relief to be away from the stuff life throws at us sometimes! We can relax into an alternative way of being.

Reading is an escape

A review by the University of Sussex in 2009 found that reading fiction gives a temporary escape and reduced feelings of stress and anxiety. It also found that readers who identified more strongly with the characters had a greater sense of escape.

A study in the Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience journal found that reading fiction can improve connections in the neural network associated with better attention and mindfulness. What this means is when we read fiction we focus our attention on the present moment and the story unfolding, which helps quieten all those thoughts rumbling around in our heads, causing us anxiety.

We’ve already talked about reading fiction developing empathy and emotional intelligence, and this can help reduce stress and anxiety as it lets us see ourselves and others better.

Reading fiction can also lower cortisol which is a hormone released in response to stress, and gives us that ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response. It can be more effective at reducing stress than listening to music or having a cup of tea. Reading before bedtime can be calming and help us prepare mind and body for sleep.

Books to reduce stress and anxiety – The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah is easy to read and a celebration of endurance and resilience. The Alchemist by Paolo Coelho encourages us to live our dreams and is also easy to read.

4. Increasing creativity and imagination

When we become immersed in imaginative worlds and characters it can encourage us to think outside the box and expand our own creativity. Stories are often different to normal life with vivid characters, settings and events that engage with our imagination. We build the story’s elements in our heads creating our very own images, and the more we read and engage with the story the more it fires our imagination.

Fiction often gives us unconventional and unique scenarios which allows us to think beyond the bounds of reality. This can encourage more divergent thinking, as in being able to come up with more creative solutions to challenges – thinking outside the box.

It also explores themes, social issues and complex characters which can spark new insights and encourage us to look at different perspectives.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings gives us a meticulously crafted fictional universe to spark our creativity and imagination. It has a vast and diverse history, geography, mythology, and languages. We are transported into Middle-Earth, with its complex characters and moral dilemmas, like Aragorn, Frodo and Gollum. The way Tolkien weaves in themes of friendship, heroism and sacrifice, allows us to explore and interpret different ways of dealing with situations in our real lives.

5. Providing entertainment and enjoyment

An immersing well-written story can give us an escape from what’s going on in our lives. A story like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins gives us a strong character in Katniss, and we are rooting for her from the start when she saves her sister from the Games by volunteering herself. Good fiction with a gripping plot, relatable characters, and thought-provoking themes carries us along on a sometimes-emotional journey with its suspense, action, and romance.

Think of a book that you just had to finish and stayed awake until the early hours to finish. Never mind the literary hangover next morning. It’s a small price for the quality of entertainment.

Fantastic Fiction

In conclusion, reading fiction is a wonderful way to improve mind and mood, from enhancing empathy and understanding to improving cognitive abilities and reducing stress and anxiety.

Whatever your preference – contemporary or classic: thriller or romance – there are countless books to borrow or buy that can give an enriching and rewarding reading experience. So, when you next have some free time, why not pick up a book and dive into a new world of imagination and discovery.

Has reading fiction helped your mental health? Drop a comment in the chat below. We’d love to hear your experience!

If you love to reflect on what you’ve read, or on life in general you might want to read Overcoming Adversity With Journaling which looks at how to set up a regular journaling practise as well as its benefits.

You are stronger than you believe
You are stronger than you believe