A reader asked for my comments on the psychology of ‘escapism.’

I’ve always found ‘escapism’ an interesting, if not misleading, concept. Usually, the term implies a value judgment. ‘You’re running away from something you should face, and that’s bad.’

Of course, it isn’t good, healthy or wise to run away from something you should face. Evasion and denial are—arguably—the root of all self-defeating evil.

However, there’s something valid called refueling, as well. Refueling your body is obvious. You eat right, exercise, and get the sleep you need. But refueling mentally is just as important, if not as obvious. Reading good books or watching rewarding entertainment—sports, movies, television or drama—are important means of refueling. Romantic love and companionship, as well as friendship, are an important form of refueling. Those who love raising children, or even caring for their pets, refuel in these ways, as well.

If somebody tells me they’re doing something escapist, I don’t automatically think, ‘How bad,’ or ‘How unhealthy.’ I do think, ‘This person doesn’t think what he’s doing is right.’

More facts, please.

What are you doing, and does it advance your life or not? Are you doing it in the right dose, or too much? Does your activity take away from another, equally important or even more important activity, such as health, or earning a living? Or does it fit in just fine—even enhancing it?

Is your television viewing or novel reading or sports watching escapist—or simply refueling? That’s the distinction to make.

Think of the difference between an alcoholic or a reasonable drinker. A reasonable drinker has a drink or two, here and there—not necessarily every day—to enhance life. An alcoholic must drink every day, no matter what, and feels a sense of despair or even panic if he fails to do so.

The dose makes the poison.

Sometimes the issue is why you’re doing the activity. For example, two people can be involved in the same activity to the same degree—sports watching or novel-reading, for example. One person is content with his life, feels he’s rationally productive, has the personal connections he wants, or at least is on the track to getting them. The second person, doing the same activity to the same degree, is desperately seeking to forget something he’d rather not face.

In the second case, it’s not the activity itself that’s unhealthy or questionable. It’s the motivation for doing it. Some psychologists talk about motivation by fear and anxiety, as opposed to motivation by love-of-the-doing. The first is unhappy, while the second is joyful.

Without realizing it, some people are running away. Not from anything in particular; but from living itself. This is a correctable problem, but first it has to be identified. One of the symptoms of the problem is the unhealthy, desperate and compulsive escapism the person asking this question probably has in mind.

I advise against categorizing certain activities as escapist, and therefore bad; while labeling other activities as rational, and therefore good. It’s less the activity itself than the manner in which you’re doing it that tells the tale.

Objectively, a certain type and dose of activity is either enhancing your life—kind of like salt, pepper or spice on food—or undermining it. That’s the defining means of determining what’s ‘escapist,’ and what isn’t.


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