Literature is Your Secret Weapon for Self-Improvement


While it’s no secret that highly successful people tend to read extensively and voraciously, we often focus on the more obviously business-related or performance-related works on their bookshelves and treat literary fiction almost as an afterthought.

Long confined to liberal arts campuses, criticized (sometimes vehemently) for its alleged uselessness in the real world of commerce and business, of gainful employment and upward mobility, the reading of literary fiction, we now know, has scientifically backed benefits that are just as valuable (if not more) to the business community, as they are to diligent English majors in libraries across America.

In a much talked about study in 2008, professors Raymond A. Mar and Keith Oatley asserted that “carefully crafted literary stories” are “simulations of selves in the social world” that “function to abstract social information so that it can be better understood, generalized to other circumstances, and acted upon.” They argue that “engaging in the simulative experiences of fiction literature can facilitate the understanding of others who are different from ourselves and can augment our capacity for empathy and social inference.”

Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, authors of the 2017 book, Cents and Sensibility: What Economics Can Learn from the Humanitiesexplain this phenomenon in simpler terms. To know people, Morson and Schapiro say, “read their stories.”

So reading literary fiction helps us understand people. But why should we care? How useful is this, really?

“Reading a great novel,” Morson and Schapiro continue, “you identify with its characters and spend countless hours feeling from within what it is like to be someone else. You experience the world as someone of a different social class, gender, religion, sexuality, moral understanding or countless other factors that differentiate human experience. And if you are going to bet on how markets will act, you sure better have an appreciation for what drives the actors. In other words, you better be able to put yourself in their place.”

This is not the usual argument we hear about literature’s usefulness, but new research is revealing benefits of reading literary fiction that were previously either dismissed or unknown. We’re used to hearing beleaguered humanities students extolling the cultural and societal value of literature, but literature is now being recognized by the business world and the start-up world as something that doesn’t merely enrich us intellectually, but as something that can also help us develop intangible skills for successfully running businesses, investing in the stock market, managing teams of employees, and creating better products.

Chief among these intangible skills is emotional intelligence. In another study, conducted in 2013 by social psychologists at the New School for Social Research in New York City, researchers gave participants different types of writing to read. Some participants were given literary fiction, some were given fiction bestsellers, some were given well-written nonfiction, and others were given nothing. Participants were then given a series of tests that measured a person’s ability to understand emotions, predict expectations, or understand beliefs in specific scenarios. More succinctly, the tests were designed to measure empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence.

The researchers found that the readers of literary fiction, and not merely popular fiction, performed better on all of the administered tests, results which were attributed to literary fiction’s capacity to encourage “readers to make inferences about characters and be sensitive to emotional nuance and complexity.” Literary fiction, the researchers argued, increased emotional intelligence.

Emotional intelligence, the ability to understand how others think and feel, has far-reaching effects on business. Understanding the thoughts and feelings of one’s employees makes for smarter, more effective leadership and a more cohesive, collaborative team environment. Understanding the thoughts and feelings of customers makes for more meaningful marketing, more responsive service, and a deeper understanding of what people like or dislike about your product and why. Understanding the thoughts and feelings of others makes for better preparation and performance in negotiations. And, perhaps most importantly, understanding the thoughts and feelings of others makes for richer, more fulfilling personal relationships, which lead to increased happiness and productivity.

With so many benefits, we might wonder why reading literary fiction isn’t frequently found on lists of daily habits and routines we should be following the way, say, exercise and meditation are. I posit two reasons for this discrepancy.

First, the positive effects of reading literary fiction aren’t tangible or immediately measurable. It does not instantly produce noticeable improvement the way exercise triggers all kinds of positive chemical reactions in our brains. Reading literary fiction increases our understanding of other people, which, though incredibly important, is a bit less noticeable than a runner’s high, or the way we feel after meditating for twenty minutes.

Second, we’ve been sort of culturally conditioned to view reading literary fiction as a waste of time. Shane Parrish acknowledges this in his Farnam Street Blog: “We all have a feeling that literature is important. And yet many of us avoid the category altogether, feeling it’s a waste of time to pick up literature when we can learn so much from non-fiction.” But, as Parrish points out, this is simply an inaccurate view of it. “Literature,” he continues, “isn’t a waste of time at all. In fact, literature saves us time.”

And this is because literature vastly expands our emotional understanding of a wide and endlessly varied array of human experience, which, in turn, enhances our ability to relate to and empathize with others.

Make reading literature a part of your daily routine. The benefits may not be of the immediately measurable sort, but they are profound, long-lasting, and valuable for us all.

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