IF YOU COUNT YOURSELF among the bookworms of the world, kudos to you. It’s a healthy habit that can improve your life in a variety of ways, including making you a better, more empathetic person. But some new research has found that to get that specific benefit, you have to be reading literary fiction… and that genre fiction won’t have the same effect.
Let’s look at the difference between the two, and why this might be the case. Literary fiction is what might be considered the more “high-brow” of the fictions, and it’s the only category that is assigned prestigious writing awards. By nature, literary fiction attempts to tell stories by explaining something about the way of the world using emotion. Think Anna Karenina, To Kill A Mockingbird, and all the other entries on your AP English reading list.
Genre fiction, on the other hand, is purely for entertainment, and therefore provides an escape from the world. Anything like romance, mystery, and the like falls into this category. There are some extremely talented writers in the genre category — i.e. Stephen King– but it is also the type of fiction that is more likely to include the not-so-good writers. Sorry, Dan Brown.
There is merit to both types of literature, depending on who you ask, but if you’re asking science, you should put down those detective stories and pick up some literary fiction, stat. That is, if you want to deepen your capacity for empathy and therefore become a better person in general.
A study published in the American Psychology Association’s Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts recently delivered these findings. The research was accomplished by first figuring out where 2,000 participants fell on the literary versus genre fiction spectrum. Then, researchers asked them to look at the faces of actors and describe the emotions on their face.
What the researchers found was that the people who read more literary fiction were all-around better at identifying emotion than the rest of the people were. Essentially, what seems to be happening is that when we read literary fiction, we are better able to get inside the minds of these complex characters and understand different ways of thinking or being. Some of this also occurs when we watch dramatic TV, by the way, but not to the extent that it does while reading. Watching television also doesn’t seem to have an effect on our empathy levels.
If you’re wondering why you you should be worrying about being more empathetic, here are some things to consider. Empathy helps us to humanize other people, which not only connects us to others in healthier ways, but it also helps us to feel less alone in the world. People feel heard when they feel understood, so being empathetic can improve your communication in all kinds of ways. It allows you to see different perspectives without having to be defensive of your own, and it can increase your intuition so that you can act faster when you do sense other people’s changing emotions.
If that’s not enough for you, know that research has also said that reading can just straight up add years to your life. It’s novel time.
Click here for a list of LadyClever’s end-of-summer reading suggestions.