How Reading Fiction Daily Will Make You Happier

Ryan Nehring

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The world today is a relentless, never-ending, all-consuming onslaught of news and opinion. Tiny red bubbles alert us to all of the information awaiting us as soon as we’re done consuming whatever kafkaesque malaise-inducing collection of paragraphs our eyes are currently glued to; each more dire and serious than the last. Each laden with heavy and severe implications commanding cerebral thought and consideration, and leaving in their wake our shell-shocked psyche’s clutching for coping mechanisms.

Frankly, it’s a bit much.

The insidious nature of this new constant-information dynamic we’ve created is that most of the time, these things truly are important. We’re right to want to be informed, and our participation in the ongoing discourse around issues of severe consequence is a vital part of a functioning and growing society. Our mistake is in not understanding where to draw boundaries.

The Importance of Story

At the risk of being inherently redundant, the story of humanity itself is the stories that we tell. We are a species built by, and for, stories. We use them to entertain, impart information and lessons, build communal knowledge, and to advance our understanding of the seemingly incomprehensible.

Moreover, I’ve always found stories to be like dreams; a sort of clearinghouse for the brain to distill and reorganize the chaotic input of a day's sensory experience. The telling or reading of a story invokes a kind of quasi-autonomic brain-state where we can put aside the “overwhelming now” and indulge in a narrative “could be”, however far-fetched.

The importance of these moments of rapture cannot be overstated; it is the very mechanism by which humans have continued to grow and advance. Unfortunately, in our efforts to mature and civilize as a species, somewhere along the line we devalued this simple and necessary joy in service to information and data, but imagination and wonderment are not elements of frivolity. Indeed it is in our most imaginative moments that we find the inspirational sparks that have fueled innovation throughout our history.

The Last Thing I Do at Night

My day, like most of yours probably, begins with the news. A compulsion to catch-up on all the things that happened while I was asleep. Input begins the moment my eyes open; Facebook timeline, Twitter feed, Newsbreak scroll, email, texts, etc. Over coffee, I consume and try to make sure I’ve cataloged and internalized all of the important events that occurred as I slept, and important people's opinions on them.

Throughout the day, this bombardment continues. I’m messaged links to important news articles, tagged in posts by people who feel something demands my attention, emailed alerts to breaking situations, and through it all I am actively refreshing my favorite news and opinion sites. Even as it’s occurring I’m aware it’s not healthy, but my drive to “be informed” supersedes my efforts at moderation; I don’t believe I’m alone in this limitation.

During times of increased consequence — around Elections for example — this compulsory gathering of information can reach frenetic, nearly manic levels. The simple act of gathering facts and information, however, is not valuable without taking the time to contextualize them and internalize their relevance, something impossible to do while clicking on the next link.

Stories contextualize. Stories give us ways to internalize and draw connections in unexpected ways, giving value to the information we gather. It’s why now the last thing I do at night is read fiction.

The Happiness Hidden in Fiction

Fiction is a joyful contradiction. The framework of good fiction rarely changes; inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. Within that framework, however, anything can happen. The possibility of unimagined worlds existing inside such a familiar construct is powerful in ways we still don’t fully understand. Some of the most profound moments I’ve ever read were uttered by a man born on Mars with powers he learned from Martians (read “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert Heinlein if you don’t believe me).

There is immense cathartic value to a great story. Our daily information intake leaves us in a constant state of “rising action”. There are no conclusions, just more information to be found, which in turn leads to even more information and opinions on that information. This is not a tenable state of being for most people. That always rising action induces anxiety, anticipation, and fear and with no climax or resolution, none of those emotions have anywhere to go when we reach the end of the article. We simply carry them to the next piece of information to repeat the process.

In that way, Fiction can serve as a pallet cleanser. A simple way to quietly decompress at the end of a day, however making it a nightly ritual renders it so much more than that. For many, television serves that purpose, but unlike TV, reading is an active process that invites your senses into your imaginative state, and in doing so gives them some time off in “the real world”. That may sound esoteric, but it’s important because inside of that fictional world, the stakes are only as high as you let them be. You are in control of your engagement. A city being bombed in a story can be captivating; a city being bombed in the real world could mean genocide, and the significance of that is not something you control.

Stories are also where we learn to make connections and see alternate perspectives; skills that are imperative to finding our own happiness amidst this flood of information. Stories can expose unexpected pieces of humanity in villains, and dark streaks inside of heroes that remind us all that despite our ever-polarizing world, humans are complex and never all just one thing. In that way, they teach us not to be reductive and to examine the layers of our fellow humans' motivations, which can open pathways to understanding.

The real world offers us an astounding amount of input every day. More than any of us can realistically utilize and the pressure to keep up with it all leaves most of us stressed and riddled with anxiety. Allowing yourself the time each day to detach from that input-conduit and replace it with one of your own choosing can have a monumental impact on your happiness.

On the best days, I find myself connecting the days' events and news with those in the story and creating context and understanding that had eluded me. On the worst days? I enjoy an amazing story and get a break from the sometimes crushing world we live in. It’s a zero-loss proposition that will gain you some happiness back each day.

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