It happens at every party; you’re balancing a drink and a plate of food, trying to make polite small-talk with someone you’ve never seen and might never see again, and in a desperate attempt to clutch at a conversation thread, you ask, “Read any good books lately?”

As cliché as this conversation starter has become, it can still lend tremendous insight into people’s tastes and personalities. Someone who can wax rhapsodic about the poetry of William Wordsworth, for instance, we might imagine to be a nature-lover. A reader of every novel Nicholas Sparks has ever written is probably a die-hard romantic. Someone who has read all of Dr Wayne Dyer’s books might be doing her best to achieve a healthy, balanced, and fulfilling life.

Yet beyond filling the void in conversation gaps, reading can have significant benefits on our health and well-being, improving our ability to connect with others, and broadening our horizons. Here are five ways that reading can benefit your life.

1. Reading can improve brain function

Believe it or not, Psychology Today reports that approximately 42% of college graduates will never read a book again after graduating, but regular reading can have a positive impact on brain function. A research study conducted at Emory University that examined the correlation between brain function and reading a novel found that FMRI scans of study participants who read Robert Harris’s Pompeii showed “heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language.”

The Daily Mail also reports that reading can help to slow memory decline. The brain, like the rest of the body, requires exercise to remain agile and alert, and reading can help to increase focus and concentration.

2. Reading can improve empathy

According to the same article in Psychology Today, those who read regularly report an increased ability to step into someone else’s shoes and experience the world through alternative points of view. Books are portals into other worlds and other times, both real and fictional. We can’t, for instance, take a trip in a time machine back to Victorian London, but we can read Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and experience a realistic account of orphan life during that period as only Dickens can tell it.

3. Reading improves your vocabulary

One of the best ways to broaden your vocabulary and communicate more effectively, whether orally or in writing, is to read. According to an article on Exforzia, those who read regularly “have a large repository of information in their brains, and they can reach into that repository to pull out words whenever they need them.” Reading challenges us to improve our language skills not only because we expand our vocabulary when we look up unfamiliar words, but also because we learn to infer meaning from context.

Imagine, for instance, that you’re reading a passage in a story in which a girl takes a walk on the seashore and discovers an abundance of shells. Perhaps you’ve never before encountered the word abundance, but when the story tells you that she hasn’t enough room in her basket to fit all of her findings, you can infer that abundance likely refers to a large quantity.

4. Reading can improve your mood

To examine the link between reading and overall well-being, Penguin conducted a study in which they asked twenty “lapsed readers” to read for twenty minutes a day over a period of ten days, keeping a diary to track their moods. One participant reported that “after reading for half an hour on my lunchbreak I felt happy, sharp, and cheerful, and the feeling lasted all afternoon.”

Part of this feeling, Baroness Gale Rebuck observes in her discussion of the study, stems from the fact that reading “helps us feel less isolated. One in four readers say that a book has helped them realize that other people have shared their life experiences.” Whether it’s a novel about a troubled marriage or a self-help book about how to overcome the pain of a broken heart, books remind us that we’re not journeying through this life alone and that we can learn and grow from sharing our stories with one another.

5. Reading fosters friendships

Many of us have probably, at one time or another, participated in a book club; coming together to read and share our thoughts about what we read often allows us to open up and share our own stories. Imagine coming together with a group of other readers to discuss a book like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, in which she details the first year of her life after suddenly losing her husband. As you delve into her emotions and allow her to share her story with you, that story might evoke memories of a grief of your own—a grief that Didion’s story has gently excavated because it’s created a safe space in which you can unburden yourself. The communal act of reading can create the connective tissue that forges friendships and binds them together through the ritual of sharing.

Featured photo credit: girl reading magazine in hotel bed via stokpic.com

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