This easy way to increase your own empathy is cheap, fun and backed by science

Want to increase your emotional intelligence, or EQ? There are lots of ways to do it, but here’s one that’s easy, fun, costs next to nothing, and you can do it anywhere: To read novels. This post comes from Maja Djikic, psychologist, associate professor and personality development expert at the University of Toronto.

Djikic studied personality from fiction, she explained in a recent interview with consultant and speaker Marianna Pogosyan Ph.D. on the Psychology Today site. Djikic and Pogosyan found in their research that reading fiction has incredible power to increase our ability to empathize – an important component of emotional intelligence or EQ – to understand what someone else is thinking. , and can even help us grow as people. .

How Does Reading Novels Change Your Brain?

How can all this good come from something as simple and enjoyable as sitting down and reading a novel? For starters, Yale researchers have already found that reading in general, and book reading in particular, is correlated with improved cognitive function and a longer life.

It’s easy to see why. Brain function is critical to our physical health and long-term survival, especially as we age, and reading exercises your mind the same way running exercises your heart. Reading a book is more of a cognitive workout than reading something shorter, like an article, because it requires more memory and more sustained attention.

So reading is good for your brain in general, but why does reading fiction specifically promote emotional intelligence? Because when you read a novel (at least, if there is one that interests you), you put yourself in the shoes of the characters. If someone in the book you care about makes a decision, whether it’s to go on a quest or stay in a bad marriage, you try to figure out what led them to make that decision. Mentally placing yourself in the middle of someone else’s life, even if that person is imaginary or even fantastical, can only increase your empathy because it forces you to look at the world, or an alternate world, from the perspective of another person’s view. .

Interestingly, research showsreading novels also increases your social skills because the part of your brain that deals with storytelling, like a novel, overlaps quite a bit with the part of the brain that deals with theory of mind – our ability to understand what what is another person thinking.

What novels to read?

Reading, especially reading books, promotes brain function. Reading novels adds the added benefit of heightened emotional intelligence. That might be enough to convince you that you should start reading more novels. But what novels should you read?

I recommend that you read novels that you enjoy, that you would look forward to reading, especially if you are just starting to read novels. You don’t have to go back and experience all those classics you never finished in college or the latest literary sensation, unless that’s really what you wanted to do. If you choose a book and find that you’re having trouble putting it down, you’re on the right track. (Conversely, if you pick up a book that doesn’t grab you, feel free to put it down and find something that does.)

It’s a good idea to look for books with rich, well-developed characters, as learning to understand these characters will sharpen your empathetic skills. Extra points if you choose a protagonist that is very different from you. Incidentally, a non-fiction book with compelling characters and a strong narrative, such as a memoir or a true story, should work just as well to help you develop empathy.

If you’re stuck for ideas, here are three authors whose books consistently make it onto entrepreneurs’ and business owners’ lists of their favorite books.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Gatsby the magnificent is considered by many to be the great American novel and tells the story of an ambitious man who rises from poverty to great wealth. Another Fitzgerald novel, The Last Tycoonexplores similar themes and offers a scathing portrait of Hollywood just before World War II – though sadly Fitzgerald died before he could finish it.

Anne Patchett

Patchett’s 2020 Novel Bel Canto is one of Melinda Gates’ favorite books. Her novel 2019 The Dutch house is a compelling story of ambition and entrepreneurship mixed with unsettling family dynamics that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

neal stephenson

Many tech entrepreneurs, including Bill Gates and Sergey Brin, are big fans of Stephenson’s speculative fiction and his novel Snowfall is the origin of the term “metaverse”. Additionally, Stephenson himself is an entrepreneur and has worked with top startups including Magic Leap and Blue Origin.

There is a growing audience of Inc.com readers who receive a daily text from me with a micro-challenge or an idea for self-care or motivation. Often they text me back and we end up in a conversation. (Interested in joining? You can find out more here.) Many are entrepreneurs and business leaders, and they tell me that emotional intelligence and the ability to understand what other people are thinking are essential tools. to succeed. Reading novels can also improve your ability to read people. Try it and see.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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