Report: The impact of reading books on people and society


Reading is good for people. Reading books in particular. Time and time again, research has shown that people who read books are better informed than people who do not and are consequently better able to hold their own in society. They are more aware of their surroundings and can envisage themselves more easily in other people’s place. They are more capable of reflecting on their own conduct and on that of others. Reading books lets them acquire a wide range of skills that also make them stand out on the work floor. In fact, reading books even helps make them more healthy: firstly because people who read books are better informed about topics such as health risks and access to care, and secondly because reading books has a positive effect on the brain. Finally and not unimportantly: reading books is an exceptionally pleasant pastime that adds to individuals’ happiness and sense of well-being.

But where do these effects come from? How is it possible that you can develop these skills by reading books? And why is it important for society?

Over the years, numerous studies have been carried out into the impact of reading books from various scientific disciplines such as literature, psychology, neuropsychology and economics. Combining a large number of such studies together creates a clear overview of the effect that reading books has. The analysis of the available data keeps revealing four themes: being a good member of society and a good employee, health, and a sense of meaningfulness. For each of those themes, a picture has been obtained of why the positive effects apply not only to the individuals but to society as a whole.

1. Fitting into society

It is important for society that people behave as good citizens and shoulder their share of the burden. People who make allowances for each other, show understanding of each other and also look round at each other. It seems likely that reading books in general – and literature in particular – helps the development of motivation and the skills that are required for it.

The phenomenon known as ’transport’ (the sensation of being drawn into the story and becoming part of what is happening) plays a role in this. You are, as it were, being carried away by the tale. Such ‘transport’ produces a variety of effects.

  • Reading encourages reflection and further thinking, more so than watching films or gaming, for instance.
  • The reader’s capacity for imagination is enhanced. When reading, people try to imagine how the characters look at the world. As a result, people develop a better understanding of others and adhere less to prejudices.
  • When people are carried away by the story, it helps develop their empathy. They learn to see things better from other people’s perspectives and care more about the well-being of others. This empathic capability also has a positive effect on their self-image.
  • When readers let themselves get entirely absorbed in a narrative, they then also tend to reflect less critically on the events in that story. This makes them more susceptible to influences, in both negative and positive ways.

In short, the skills that people develop or reinforce because they read benefit the way in which they understand the world around them and the way in which they themselves contribute to it. In modern society, this is important for the bonds and connections between people. Getting to know other worlds, wanting to understand others, wanting encounters and contacts: these are needed if people are to break free from the echo chambers and filter bubbles. And participation in society does not start spontaneously either. The ability to put yourself in the position of others, empathy and a positive self-image all reduce the barriers to getting up and taking action.

2. Employment skills

The competences that you need for the labour market are subject to change, as the World Economic Forum recently reconfirmed. Digitization and related developments demand innovative, competitive and flexible employees who are good communicators. Those are very definitely skills that you can improve by reading a lot: the more someone reads, the more easily they understand information and are able to process it.

These new requirements are in addition to the traditional ‘hard skills’ such as professional knowledge and competency, experience and general development, as well as the ‘soft skills’ such as critical thinking, problem-solving abilities and communications skills.

One of the key skills that you acquire through reading books is of course the development of your language competences. A major European study produced a picture of the influence that language skills have on the work floor. People who are highly literate often have better-paid work than less literate individuals, they have permanent employment contracts more often and have a higher average hourly wage than those who are less literate. These differences can be related directly to language skills, even after they have been corrected for the educational level, gender, age, ethnicity and parental education.

And reading books also helps the development of cognitive skills. People who read books from a young age develop higher general intelligence on average than people who read less often. Reading books also helps develop a general world view. It is also known that a mere six months of reading skills training for less literate individuals was enough to have a positive effect on the connections and pathways being laid in the brain.

In summary: digitization of the labour market demands different skills. The labour market is becoming more global and more competitive, and it is starting to become an environment of networks. The new jobs require skills such as empathy, creativity, leadership and critical thinking. Skills that you can acquire or reinforce by reading. Or indeed that you can even improve by reading to a greater extent than by other activities such as thinking in scenarios.

3. Health

Reading books does not of itself improve health, but research has shown that there is in fact a strong correlation between reading books and health. People who read are more than 25% more likely to be healthy than non-readers, even when this is corrected for aspects such as education, income and age. This is because the ability to read and process information helps people hold their own in society. And thereby also in the world of health and care. This is referred to as ‘health literacy’: the skill of being able to find information relating to health and illness, to process it, and take actions based on it.

On top of that, there are numerous indications that reading books has a positive influence on health. Reading books every day as a solitary activity results in a clearly lower mortality risk. As a cognitively stimulating activity, reading books also results in a reduced risk of dementia developing. Reading books acts as a stimulus for the brain.

In terms of physical health, literacy and language skills are key factors. People who are highly literate are better able to obtain information about health, illnesses and the range of care on offer; as a result, their health risks are lower. Reading – and reading books in particular – also has a positive effect on brain activity, as a result of which readers live longer on average.

4. Well-being

Let us not forget the most important thing about reading: it is something that we do above all because we enjoy it. Some people read in order to lose themselves in a captivating narrative and be drawn into another world; others read in order to feel happier or to find solace; yet others grab a book so that they can learn something from it. These are all reasons why picking up a book lets you add something to your life, in a pleasant and meaningful way.

Readers note that they get a feeling while reading of making an excursion to another world and leaving their worries behind as they read. One study among students found that their stress levels had fallen significantly after half an hour’s reading. Another study showed that reading a story actually worked better against stress than listening to music, drinking a cup of tea, taking a walk or gaming. Just six minutes spent reading is enough to reduce stress levels by two thirds.

People also use book reading as a diversion or to find comfort. When people are experiencing something difficult, reading about fictional characters who are in a comparable situation can help. A study of people who were reading Tonio by A.F.T. van der Heijden (a book that is about the loss of his son) showed that the reason for one specific group of readers to be reading it was that they were hoping to find support in it for their own grieving process. Although they found it tough to read, it did indeed offer solace for many of them.

Research has also shown that reading books has a positive effect on people’s imaginative and empathic capabilities, which in turn benefits their personal sense of well-being and happiness.

Finally, reading books has an effect on people’s self-image. By putting ourselves in the characters’ shoes, we are for a while not tied to the restrictions of our own ‘self’ and can imagine that we are absolutely anybody. This helps expand the limits of your opinion of yourself, claim the researchers.

In short, reading leads to contentment in a very direct way: it offers positive experiences. People read for pleasure. The specific phenomenon of getting swept away in the narrative also lets reading build up the skills that are associated with a ‘happier’ life. Relaxation, being able to cope well with emotions and pressure, higher emotional intelligence and a positive self-image are all elements that benefit your personal well-being.

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