I think fiction books tend to get a bad rap in the business world. Most the books I see on reading lists and most of the books I see friend sharing about on social media are non-fiction. I love reading and I’ve read several life-changing non-fiction books already this year, but as creative business owners, we sometimes tend to underestimate the power of a good fiction book.
Our brains need rest. Most humans are only capable of focusing for about 90 minutes of time. After that, our brains become fatigued and it’s much more difficult to absorb new information. We need true mental breaks in order to process information, store memories and spark creative ideas. That’s one of the reasons why our best ideas often come in the shower.
After a busy day of work, we often think that cozying up on the couch for a Netflix show or two will help our minds settle down, but studies show that while part of our brain becomes inactive while we’re watching TV, the visual cortex is highly stimulated. This mix of offline and online parts of your brain leaves the mind in a faux state of rest. Your mind isn’t fully relaxed or full engaged – you’re in a sort of limbo.
Mindlessly scrolling through social media and checking email is even worse. For many of us, texting, email and social media are still work. We pick up that phone thinking that we can scroll through Instagram and Facebook and “catch up” on what we missed while we were working. I don’t know about you, but social media isn’t restful for me. It might start out as a way to take a mental break and see what my friends are up to, but inevitably you come across something you were probably better off not seeing. Maybe it’s a political debate happening on a Facebook post or maybe it’s seeing someone sharing that trip / project / blog post that you were hoping to share. And so instead of feeling rested, you end up feeling like you aren’t enough.
A poll from the National Sleep Foundation found that 95% of Americans use technology within the last hour before going to sleep. “Artificial light exposure between dusk and the time we go to bed at night suppresses release of the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, enhances alertness and shifts circadian rhythms to a later hour—making it more difficult to fall asleep,” says Charles Czeisler, PhD, MD, Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital. All that screentime before bed means more anxiety in the morning, more caffeine and more grogginess throughout the day.
True Rest & Stress Relief
Finding rest is about so much more than wearing the right anti-glare, anti-blue-light glasses.
The University of Sussex found that reading is the most effective way to overcome stress. It’s better than listening to music, going for a walk or enjoying a cup of tea. After 6 minutes of reading, “participants heart rates slowed and the tension in their muscles eased up by 68%.” Psychologists believe reading is more effective than other methods of stress reduction because “the human mind has to concentrate on reading and the distraction of being taken into a literary world eases the tensions in muscles and the heart.” The state that our mind enters when we read is similar to meditation – in fact it even has the same health benefits.
I’m going to take this a step farther and argue that this is even more true of fiction books than non-fiction books. Getting lost in a good fiction book is so different than reading a non-fiction book. When I read non-fiction, my brain automatically comes up with things for me to do. I want to take notes, I want to copy quotes, I want to digest what I’m reading and think about how it’s going to help my business and/or my life. But reading fiction is really just about enjoying a story. It’s a real way to escape from your day before bed and it’s one that is far more restful than watching tv or scrolling through your phone.
Empathy & Improved Relationships
Many studies have shown that reading everything from Harry Potter to Anna Karenina has a positive effect on our ability to be empathetic and understand emotional intelligence. Harry Potter has even been found to reduce prejudice and improve attitudes towards stigmatized groups.
A paper in the journal Science showed that people who read bits of novels and then took tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence scored significantly higher than people who read non-fiction or genre fiction. They found that reading fiction temporarily enhances the “theory of mind” and a person’s ability to imagine and understand the mental states of others.
For most small business owners, our careers are entirely dependent on the relationships we form. Referrals are often the best source of new projects for many of us and the more we understand the mental state of those we work with, the better we can serve our clients and continue to grow our businesses.
There’s a reason why some of the most successful creative firms are filled with ping pong tables, video games, books and other ways to encourage “play”. Play isn’t just about escaping from a difficult project, a playful mindset actually helps us solve problems and think more creatively. In 2010, researchers Paul Howard-Jones, Jayne Taylor and Lesley Sutton found that allowing students to play for 10 minutes before a task resulted in more creative ideas and better output. A playful mindset has also been found to help eliminate the fear of failure.
And fiction? Scientists believe that fiction originates in play. Reading a story is the adult way of playing “make-believe” and creating imaginative worlds. Fiction helps us to conceive and evaluate alternatives. It boosts our creativity in a way that non-fiction does not and encourages us to think about ideas in different ways.
My Favorite Fiction Books
I’ve read a lot of fiction books over the past few years and I’ve found that many of the popular ones you see on best seller lists—the ones with the pretty Instagrammable covers—are pretty terrible. So many of those books are bland and predictable. Don’t bother with The Nest, Eligible, Me Before You, The Swans of Fifth Avenue…
I’ve also read a lot of really great fiction books. I absolutely loved The Nightingale, Lilac Girls: A Novel, At the Water’s Edge, Along the Infinite Sea, Everyone Brave is Forgiven and The Gilded Years. I feel like I’m about to totally admit my nerdiness here, but I also really loved The Lord of The Rings books (skip The Hobbit). They take a while to get into, but Tolkien is such a gifted writer and it’s an incredible story. I also just started reading the first book in The Wheel of Time series and it’s almost, but not quite, as good as Lord of the Rings! Don’t let the ugly book covers or the fact that it’s never been made into a movie or a book throw you off (producers hit some legal battles). It is a bigger reading commitment, but if reading fiction is a part of your daily routine and it’s something you generally enjoy doing, this story is more than engaging enough to keep you reading.
My Challenge to You
Turn off the TV, put down your phone after dinner and pick up a good fiction book.
As small business owners and as people, I think we could all do with more rest, better sleep, more empathy and more creativity.