Can reading make you more empathetic?

reading_TNAvid book readers often find themselves coming up against the stereotype of a bespectacled, socially awkward youth who would rather spend their time with a good novel than anyone else. However, recent studies have shown that reading fiction can in fact make you more empathetic, improving communication and social skills whilst reducing the risk of mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. By reading frequently and extensively, your ability to visualise circumstances and understand how a person might think, feel and act in said situations increases significantly.

Empathy is defined as the skill of understanding, sharing and reacting with sensitivity to the often complex feelings of those around you, and is a hugely important life skill. A keen sense of empathy can result in increasingly social behaviour that benefits those around you, as well as developing other positive characteristics such as altruism, generosity and heroism.

When you read a good book, you may become so immersed in the story that characters begin to seem real, this is because the act of reading activates the same brain regions as real life experiences. By living vicariously through the literature you enjoy, it is possible to develop your ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, stepping into their shoes and living their life. This inevitably leads to increased empathy, particularly if you are honestly interested and emotionally involved in the novel (unfortunately this trick won’t work quite so well if you’re reading something you are not enjoying out of obligation.)

Moreover, reading is by no means the only way to develop empathy, and can be combined with a number of different methods to foster increased sensitivity to the feelings of others. Doing something as simple as asking a person how they are and actually listening to their response can massively improve your emotional sensitivity whilst perhaps making their day a little bit better; or if you’re feeling very dedicated learning another language has been found to improve your ability to see situations from different perspectives. There are a multitude of different techniques to become more emotionally intelligent and understanding, so why not try and give some of them a go every day?

Empathy not only improves your own mental state, but has the ability to positively influence the lives of the people around you. So take a minute to put yourself in someone else’s shoes before you make a quick judgement, and you might just be surprised at the result!

Jolie LVI Form (Year 12)

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