Want to increase your emotional intelligence, or EQ? There are many ways to do this, but here's one that's easy, fun, costs almost nothing, and that you can do anywhere:  Read novels. That message comes from Maja Djikic, a psychologist, associate professor, and personality development expert at the University of Toronto.

Djikic has been studying the personality of fiction, she explained in a recent interview with consultant and lecturer Marianna Pogosyan Ph.D. at the Psychology Today website. Both Djikic and Pogosyan have found in their research that reading fiction has an amazing 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 pleasurable, as sitting around reading a novel? To begin with, researchers at Yale have already found that reading in general, and reading books in particular, correlates with improved cognitive function and a longer life.

It's easy to see why. Brain function is essential to our physical health and long-term survival, especially as we get older, and reading exercises your mind in much the same way that running exercises your heart. Reading a book is more of a cognitive workout than reading something shorter, such as an article, because it demands 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 it's one that interests you), you put yourself in the characters' place. If someone in the book that you care about makes a decision, whether to go on a quest or stay in a bad marriage, you try to understand what led them to make that decision. Mentally placing yourself in the middle of someone else's life, even if that someone is imaginary or even fantastical, can't help but increase your empathy because it forces you to look at the world, or some alternate world, from another person's point of view.

Interestingly, research shows, reading novels also increases your social skills because the part of your brain that deals with narrative, such as a novel, overlaps quite a bit with the part of the brain that deals with theory of mind--our ability to understand what another person is thinking.

Which novels should you read?

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

I recommend reading novels that appeal to you, that you would look forward to reading, especially if you're just getting into the novel-reading habit. You don't need to go back and real all those classics you never finished in college or the latest literary sensation, unless that's really what you want to do. If you pick a book and find you have trouble putting down, you're on the right track. (Conversely, if you pick up a book that doesn't grab you, feel free to set it down and find something that does.)

It's a good idea to look for books with rich, well-developed characters, since learning to understand those characters will sharpen your empathetic skills. Extra points if you choose a protagonist who's very different from you. Incidentally, a nonfiction book with compelling characters and a strong narrative, such as a memoir or true-life story should work just as well to help you build empathy.

If you're stuck for ideas, here are three authors whose books regularly turn up on entrepreneurs' and business leaders' lists of their favorite books.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

The Great Gatsby is considered by many to be the great American novel, and tells the tale of an ambitious man who rises from poverty to great wealth. Another Fitzgerald novel, The Last Tycoon, explores similar themes and offers a scathing portrait of Hollywood right before World War II--although unfortunately Fitzgerald died before he could complete it.

Ann Patchett

Patchett's 2020 novel Bel Canto is among Melinda Gates' favorite books. Her 2019 novel The Dutch House is a fascinating tale of ambition and entrepreneurship mixed with troublesome family dynamics that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

Neal Stephenson

Many tech entrepreneurs, most notably Bill Gates and Sergey Brin, are huge fans of Stephenson's speculative fiction, and his novel Snow Crash is where the term "metaverse" originated. Plus, Stephenson himself is an entrepreneur and has worked with high-profile startups, including Magic Leap and Blue Origin.

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