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What are the benefits of reading books? A lot, actually

10 surprising psychological and physical perks associated with regular reading.
/ Source: TODAY

Love to curl up on the couch with a good book? You aren’t alone.

According to a Gallup poll published in 2022, in 2021 Americans read roughly 12 books a year, amounting to around one a month. That number is the lowest it's been since Gallup began tracking Americans' reading habits back in 1990.

Whether the decline in reading books is the result of busy lifestyles or the lure of binge-watching the latest series on TV, the time has come to get back on the book bandwagon.

If the latest bestseller is collecting dust on your nightstand, knowing the benefits of reading might be just the motivation you need to pick it back up.

Of course, you can also join TODAY's own book club band leader, Jenna Bush Hager, in the new initiative "Streaking With Jenna" to get back on track because as readers already know, there's nothing quite like settling in a with a great book. Designed to build or bolster a reading habit, Streaking With Jenna encourages people to keep track of their reading streak in 2023.

Download a printable Streaking With Jenna calendar here.

"It's like a sanctuary," Maryanne Wolf, professor-in-residence at UCLA and director, Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice, tells

"I have 20 minutes in the morning, 20 minutes in the evening after Netflix or whatever I've done in between a thousand emails," Wolf explains of her reading habit.

"And that helps center me, it helps remind me of the priorities of the day before, of the next day, and of that very moment."

From increasing your vocabulary and conversation skills to sleeping better and living longer, here are 10 scientific and psychological benefits of reading to inspire you to get back into the habit.

1) Reading might lengthen your lifespan

Good news, bookworms: Reading books might be part of the key to a long life.

A 2016 study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine found reading books can reduce mortality by up to 20%.

According to the researchers, "any level of book reading gave a significantly stronger survival advantage," particularly for adults 65 and older who "redirect leisure time" from watching TV into reading books.

The study also found that reading alone isn't enough — it's reading books that makes the difference. Books contributed to a "survival advantage that was significantly greater than that observed for reading newspapers or magazines," the authors noted.

2) Encourages empathy

Reading books can help us become more compassionate, empathetic people.

"We have more opportunity to deepen our insights, our epiphanies, our sense of our own best thoughts," explains Wolf. "It gives us more empathy, perspective — taking into other people's viewpoints, thoughts and feelings."

And there's science to back it up.

In a 2013 study published in "Science," researchers found that literary fiction, in particular, led to readers being better at understanding what other people were thinking and feeling, along with increasing their capacity for empathy.

3) Helps lessen cognitive decline

Like the rest of your body, your brain needs exercise to help keep it working at its best. Reading books is one way to help keep your mind sharp.

"Various activities, including reading, that are seen as cognitively engaging are definitely associated with better brain health," Jonathan King, Ph.D., senior scientific advisor in the division of behavioral and social research at National Institute on Aging, tells

While the jury is still out on if reading can prevent dementia, research suggests that older people who read more than those who don't appear to have a reduced risk of cognitive decline.

At the very least, King says that older adults who read more often generally have "larger vocabularies than younger adults because of all the reading experiences that they've done," which helps in obtaining "crystalized knowledge,"or things people have read about that they can put to use in their day-to-day lives.

4) Reduces stress

The American Psychological Association found in its 2022 annual survey on stress in America that a quarter of American adults feel that they're "too stressed to function."

High levels of stress are associated with a variety of physical and mental problems, making stress management essential to personal wellness.

Engaging in stress-relieving activities, like reading books, is an easy way to help keep cortisol levels down.

"Reading has been connected to meditation in terms of the way our brain processes our environment and our physiological state," Zoe Shaw, Psy.D., licensed psychotherapist and author of “A Year of Self-Care: Daily Practices and Inspiration for Caring for Yourself," tells

"If you're sitting in a chair or laying in your bed and you're focusing on reading, your body can actually go into a type of meditative state," Shaw says. "So, you can get some of the benefits of meditating by reading."

Research backs this up, including a study that found 30 minutes of reading had the same ability to decrease stress as 30 minutes of yoga.

5) Improves critical thinking

Can reading make you smarter? In short, yes. Of course, it’s complicated and any number of things contribute to a person's overall knowledge and intelligence.

That said, a 1998 study concluded that reading "yields significant dividends for everyone."

In the study, those who were more "avid" readers, regardless of their overall abilities, were better able to answer various practical knowledge questions, like who their U.S. senators were and how many teaspoons equal one tablespoon, even if they weren't necessarily versed in those topics.

Reading can also improve critical thinking skills, Wolf tells

"One of the great benefits is not just to the individual's insights; it's to the individual's ability to participate in democracy with a critical, empathic mind," she says.

6) Promotes self-care

If you've ever gotten lost in a book, then you can attest to this: Reading a book simply makes you feel good. Entertainment is as much of a perk of reading as all those positive psychological and scientific benefits.

Shaw says that, while they're engrossing in their own ways, TV, movies and scrolling through social media don't offer the same degree of escape and calm that reading a book provides.

"It's not as relaxing to our body to read on computers or devices," Shaw says, explaining that when you read a book, your brain comes up with images to accompany what you're reading about, engaging your creative mind while helping you relax at the same time.

"We're gaining knowledge and, to a certain extent, caring for ourselves because we are expanding our understanding of the world, of ourselves – and that is self-care," she continues.

7) Enhances conversation skills

According to a 2015 study, above-average readers had a much higher rate of vocabulary growth than average readers did.

"We know that the best way to help children learn to write, to help children with their vocabulary and increase their general academic performance is to read to them," Shaw says.

"It also works for us as adults. Our vocabulary is increased, our conversation skills are increased," she says. "More than that, we write better when we read more."

8) Improves sleep

Does your bedtime routine include a few minutes (or hours) of screen time?

If it does, chances are good that scrolling through Instagram or checking your email is negatively impacting your ability to sleep.

A 2020 study published in Nature and Science of Sleep found that using a mobile device for at least 30 minutes after turning off the lights resulted in poor sleep quality, daytime sleepiness and other sleep disturbances.

Reading a book before bed, however, has exactly the opposite effect.

"Reading can improve sleep," Shaw says. "It activates the frontal lobe, the limbic system, and it creates a relaxing cascade in our body."

In 2021, researchers studied reading and sleep patterns and found that, overall, reading a book in bed before sleeping led participants to feel their quality of sleep improved.

"It can help calm you and get you into that place much better than other types of activities," says Shaw.

9) Fosters connection

Divisiveness has been on the rise in recent years, leading to what many consider to be a disconnect between people and decline of community.

While every issue can't obviously be solved by reading a book, picking one up can be beneficial in helping close the gap.

"In this minute of our society in this tiny, strained, moment in human history, we need to have people have communication with each other," Wolf tells

"Not just connects with friends and social media, but deeper forms of communication, so that we understand each other, even when we are by ourselves," she says.

"There is this amazing miracle that we can understand another if we give it time, without ever leaving our chair."

10) Provides time to recharge your batteries

Time with a book is also time for you.

"Reading forces you to spend time with yourself. It forces you to kind of isolate in a healthy way," she tells

"There’s also this sense of self-comforting in the process of reading, which is different than on our devices," Shaw says and explains that when you use your phone or device as an escape, it's easy to be interrupted by notifications and other distractions.

"But usually when we choose to read a book, we’re taking specific space and time where we’re going to get more comfortable and just kind of hunker down with the book."