As an author and passionate reader (I looked it up for this post and saw that I've bought about 180 books over the past 12 months) it's wonderful to see that a newly release scientific study confirms something that many of us already knew to be true: reading literary fiction improves our empathy.
Literary fiction is "serious" literature -- think everything from Dostoyevsky to Diaz -- as opposed to the majority of mainstream spy thrillers, romances, legal dramas, mysteries and the like that many of use for light reading. Presumably, one of the key differences between light and literary fiction is that light reading is not only more plot-driven, relegating character development to second-tier status, but also that the characters themselves are generally shallower, more two-dimensional in their presentation. They tend to reflect expected stereotypes that we've come to expect and have already encountered. In contrast, literary fiction -- with it's nuance, subtly, and complexity -- stimulates our own minds and imaginations as well as gives us newfound insight into the minds of others. We are exposed to new perspectives, behaviors, and understandings of our world and the people who inhabit it.
What literary fiction does then, at least according to this study, is allow us inside the minds of others, helping us understand complex mental states that aren't otherwise familiar. Which is another way of saying: it broadens our understanding of and empathy for other human beings. This is important for a number of reasons. Numerous other studies (scroll down to Chapter 17: Found in Sixty Seconds) have shown that empathy improves our physical health, makes us kinder people, reduces anxiety, lessens negative emotions, and generally makes us happier. Just as importantly, empathy is what makes society in general a better place. The more empathetic we are and the more people that are empathetic, the better and more advanced society as a whole becomes.
Of course, it's not just literary fiction that improves our empathy. The authors of the study themselves theorize that many types of art are likely to have similar effects. So, too, does travel to other places and cultures. Most importantly of all, empathy and compassion can be directly practiced and learned, even without external influences, as I elucidate and teach in The Bliss Experiment.
Still, reading literary fiction is indisputably important for our growth. My own spiritual teacher, Paramhansa Yogananda, perhaps in defiance of the typical image of the wise "guru" on the hill who poo-poos all things of the world, actually recommended that everyone read at least a little bit every day-- and not solely "spiritual" material either. Yogananda recognized that reading helps expands and uplifts our understanding and consciousness.
Just as vitally, it's important to note that this study found positive results accrued in just a few minutes. So you needn't force yourself to hunker down with War and Peace for three hours per day to see benefit (though there's nothing wrong with it if you do!). In fact, it turns also turns out that you don't even have to particularly enjoy the literary fiction, either! The empathetic benefits still accrue, even if you feel like you're slogging through it.
So the next time you're wondering what good is High Art, your children are grumbling about their English class assignments, or you find yourself stuck with someone droning on about the injustices and overisghts of year's Man Booker short-list, remember that there just might be something to this reading stuff after all. If you happen to have a few spare minutes here and there, don't hesitate to pick up that fine piece of literature you've always wanted to read (or at least thought you should try). In all scientific seriousness, it will change your life.