Is escapism healthy?

By Tatjana POZNAKOVA, EEB4 S7 ENA

Let us begin this examination of the coping mechanism known as escapism by seeing what the beloved internet sources have to say about it. Wikipedia defines escapism as “mental diversion from unpleasant or boring aspects of daily life, typically through activities involving imagination or entertainment. Escapism may be used to occupy oneself away from persistent feelings of depression or general sadness.” This definition is alright, however yours truly may argue that escapism isn’t used only as a means of aversion from depression, or general sadness. Many would agree that escapism oftentimes stems from regular boredom, and/or lack of interest for any current situation. As any coping mechanism, escapism helps individuals get through any undesirable situation through a more pleasant mean. So far, it seems like quite a useful tool. Why would any one person not use all they have available to ensure they feel the best way possible, to extract the largest amount pleasure from the situations they go through? It may be far-reaching to place as much importance on escapism as on surviving, however coping mechanisms are what often make surviving become thriving and improve our lives for the better. Put this way, another question arises – could escapism be defined as a necessary condition, or a contributing condition for happiness?   

Psychologically Speaking… 

Freud argued that it is, indeed, a necessary condition for human beings, that escapism is something that fulfils our lives, that makes our lives more complete, more colourful. He writes, “[Humans] cannot subsist on the scanty satisfaction they can extort from reality,” In some way, he suggested that real life offers too little satisfaction to an individual, so the individual must opt for filling in the less pleasant aspects of his life with his imagination, thus creating in his mind realities that do not exist, but that offer pleasure and fulfilment to their creator. Moreover, Theodore Fontane similarly considered that escapism is something humans can’t live without, stating ‘We simply cannot do without auxiliary constructions.’

Throughout History 

Escapism is, essentially, storytelling. One makes up a story to help oneself, for distraction or for a way to evade situations. Some people use escapism as a way to find a solution to some problem, by imagining an abstract, theoretical situation, and going through their possible actions. Once defined this way, it is then easy to see the similarities between escapism and traditional word-of-mouth communication, storytelling. This way of teaching morals and spending time, both alone and in company, goes back to the early human populations, that had no way to transcribe their traditions, stories, rules… spoken word has been, and still, is the collective wisdom and intelligence which we as humans hold. We give meaning to the stories we tell, and most of the time get a lot of pleasure for them. Telling stories is an integral part of human development, as it is how we learn from an early age, and how we teach, how we share with others. 

Escapism Today

In fact, sharing stories has led to different forms of modern entertainment. Take, for instance, book reading. Literary fiction is the mother of escapism; an individual reads (and thus imagines) a world that is different from their own (the degree of difference depends exclusively on the reader’s choice), thus exchanging their own reality for a new one, one in which they appear as a spectator, and one which they can endlessly observe, without being obliged to participate.  

Fictional characters sometimes call upon the reader unexpectedly, like Huck does in Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,’ but that ain’t no matter.”), or Ishmael in Moby Dick (“Call me Ishmael.”), or the protagonist of Jane Eyre (Reader, I married him.”), by breaking the so-called Literary fourth wall. The reader then snaps out of the escapist trance, and momentarily becomes part of the story, part of the escapist reality. This is quite unusual, as most of the time the escapee is a passive character while reading. On the other hand, in other forms of escapism, the creator usually takes part in what they imagine, often being the main figure around whom the action is set.   

Then cinema came along at the end of the 19th century, providing us with vivid images that can keep us occupied for hours on end. In fact, it may be an escapist tool far stronger and more accessible to the masses, not only because one does not need the ability to read, but because on average one needs less concentration to watch a movie, as opposed to settling with a book. Modern day escapism would primarily be digital escapism; whiling away hours of the day by perusing one’s feed continuously, watching sit-coms, movies… yet this sort of escapism may be more harmful than relieving. We see snippets of lives that appear ultimately perfect, and begin comparing these with our own lives, which we see every second of every day. We see not only the good moments, but also our downfalls, our struggles, and our darkest sides. Most of the time, we do not see this when using social media; we see the side people choose for us to see. This might be the main reason that we feel so unfulfilled with our lives after digital escapism. On the other hand, some aspects of social media actually enhance one’s escapism quality; by being part of forums, or role-playing in alternate realities, a person may develop their sense of creativity. 

Physical Escapism 

While physical escapism may mean to actually walk away from a situation, it may also mean changing scenery, like travelling (both on a small and big scale), and this is what I will focus on in this part of the article.  

People who suffer from overwhelming stress are often told that a change of setting may be beneficial to their state. This helps to get an outsider’s view of one’s situation, re-evaluate one’s choices and imagine new ways of living. Indeed, travelling often serves as a palate cleanser, and refreshes the individual’s perception on his day-to-day life, as well as his aspirations on a grander scale. Moreover, travelling enriches our lives with new knowledge of culture, and other ways of living that we have previously been oblivious to. So far, so good. 

However, this encompasses leaving things as they are back in our own lives. Most of the time, hitting ‘pause’ doesn’t solve the problem, but leaves it in the same state, or in some cases, the unsolved becomes even more unsolvable. After all, “we are responsible for all that we are”, and must live accordingly. We should be able to take care of things happening in our lives (that are within our control).  

These two aspects put together, the reader might find themselves rightfully asking, what’s the verdict? Is travelling a healthy form of escapism, or is it better to constantly confront our present realities, to be at all times aware of our circumstances? Now, the approach to this may differ from person to person, but from the humble author’s moderate experience, I believe that, as with everything, moderation is key. To escape slumps, one should regularly consider taking a break, going on an adventure to shift perspective, to deepen one’s understanding of the world and of oneself. This regular, anticipated change could be very beneficial in developing one’s personality.  

The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly 

Certainly, escapism carries a lot of positive aspects with it. By engaging in a little escapism now and then, you are able to relax, acquire a fresh perspective and find solutions to problems deemed unsolvable before, and create better situations for yourself, create a more pleasing life experience. Escapism expands your imagination if you create a bigger, better world than the one you’re physically in. 

Nevertheless, escapism has its own negative baggage that must be kept in mind: it seems as though if we don’t deal with our issues, if we avoid them, we could be at risk of developing more depressive symptoms. Overuse of the Internet, and especially social media, is often linked to loneliness and compulsiveness. Why social media? Because as it has been established, we see what people want us to see. I have introduced this topic earlier in the article. While we see ourselves 24/7, struggling, making mistakes, and overcoming hardships among the positive aspects of our lives, we only see the great parts of everyone else’s lives online. We see how cool and successful and fulfilled everyone seems, and oftentimes we begin comparing ourselves to them. ‘Why can’t I look like that, why doesn’t my house look like that, why do they lead a life much better than mine?’ In reality, they seldom live better than us, but we are blinded by the show of highlighted moments, that make us feel like their life is that, and only that. Escapism might act as a barrier between us and our reality and escaping into a narrower reality does more harm than good. If we close in on ourselves instead of confronting our reality, it shuts our perspective and mind on present realities. 

Escapism gets ugly when it starts harming; escapism through means of substance abuse, uncontrollable gambling, and overall continuous reckless behaviour endangers the life of the individual and hinders them from attaining their highest potential, being everything that they could. That is why, once again; moderation is key.  

After all, one shouldn’t rely too heavily on escapism to fulfil one’s life; it should be a tool to make it better, but it should not be the foundation of one’s life. Yes, decidedly, a tool; an instrument which one could use to enhance certain aspects, and use to make life better, not just in one’s imagination, but in the most imposing of realities.  

Sources: pixabay.com

One thought on “Is escapism healthy?

  1. Thank you for walking me so beautifully through the different layers of escapism. I now feel less guilty about using escapism, in fact , I understand it as being a healthy exercise in small portions.

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