Escapism vs. Refueling: Good? Bad? Or Indifferent?

Black and white image of video game controllers that reads Choose Your Weapon

A psychology student writes with the following questions:

“What is your opinion on escapism, i.e., the act of escaping everyday stress through fantasy and entertainment? Is it a healthy way to relieve stress?”

Dr. Hurd replies: The term “escapism” usually has a negative implication. In general, when someone says, “I’m escaping,” they’re implying, “I’m doing something unimportant (such as scrolling through Facebook or randomly surfing the Internet) instead of something important (my work, my contact with friends, care for my pets, my house or car maintenance, etc.).”

If this is what’s meant by escapism, then it’s obviously a bad idea. However, there is something else that I call “refueling.” Refueling refers to things of secondary importance that we do in order to mentally or psychologically recharge our spirits (or bodies) so that we can better handle the primary commitments to career, marriage/relationships, family/kids etc.

There’s nothing wrong with refueling via fantasy and entertainment. We might enjoy video games, television shows, movies, reading or downloading novels, stories, or poetry. Music activates all kinds of psychological fantasies and has the effect of taking our minds to some other place. Human beings of all cultures have refueled from the earliest times of history as much as their technology and imagination will allow.

“What do you think of escapist subcultures such as Cosplay and gamers? Is this healthy behavior for people or is it deviant?”

Dr. Hurd replies: Cosplay is a portmanteau of costume play, or performance art in which participants called cosplayers wear costumes and fashion accessories to represent a specific character or idea that is usually identified with a unique name or “avatar.” Cosplayers often interact to create a subculture centered on role play. A broader use of the term “cosplay” applies to any costumed role-play in venues apart from the stage, regardless of the cultural context. Favorite sources include manga and anime, comic books and cartoons, video games, and live-action films.

I don’t find anything inherently irrational or wrong – which I define as against the interests of advancing one’s life – in these activities. The question with fantasy is whether you lose contact with reality in the process of taking part in the fantasy. In other words, not whether you become psychotic or delusional (unlikely), but do you become so involved with the activity that it becomes your primary purpose in life rather than merely a method of refueling.

Refueling refers to something like a hobby. It means an activity you can pick up and put down at will. You might go days or weeks without it, as you become involved with primary relationships or career/school activities in your daily life. But you can pick it up again any time.

I don’t doubt that some people with interest in cosplay, anime, video games or anything else become so engaged in it that it harms or undermines their ability to engage in basic responsibilities of daily living. But people also do this with shopping, sex, computer time and even sports or exercise. It’s similar to a drug addiction, in this respect. But I don’t assume there’s anything about the activity itself – or fantasy activity in general – that makes it automatically irrational or deviant, as you put it. In other words, “The dose makes the poison.”

I recognize that for whatever reason, some people are physically or mentally impaired or incapacitated. Others, for various reasons, are bored with the limited job or educational activities available to them. If you don’t like your job or career, I would advise you to plan a long-range series of goals to make the transition to a more rewarding career over a period of time. However, if you’re simply unable to do this, it’s possible that your enjoyment of an activity might fill some of the void left by unfulfilling prospects otherwise unavailable in life. I like to think that this is the exception and not the norm, however, and I certainly wouldn’t advise giving up on improving your career and or primary personal/family relationships in favor of a fantasy-based hobby. That would certainly qualify as unhealthy escapism.

“Do you believe there is a link between the advancement of technology, the rise of escapism, and depression?”

Dr. Hurd replies: There’s no question that the expansion of technology allows more room for quick and easy refueling and escapism. However, we can’t blame technology itself. For a person to engage in unhealthy escapism, he or she must have some underlying core beliefs or habits leading up to and reinforcing the problem. If somebody has these unhealthy or dysfunctional core beliefs and emotions, they will naturally gravitate towards any kind of escape. The increasing availability of escapes via technology may provide the vehicle, but doesn’t determine why someone chooses to make that escape.

My theory is that material advancement propelled by capitalism has made people richer than ever before in human history. “Rich” is, of course, a relative concept, and in an economically advanced society like the U.S., the vast majority of us who are not billionaires do not consider ourselves rich. However, compared to an undeveloped or third-world (pre-capitalist) society, even those of us on welfare are quite rich indeed.

I would personally argue that the material progress fueled by capitalism and technological advancement are good things. I sincerely wish the same for people in poor countries, and fostering such a system would, in my view, be the best way to help others.

However, the fact remains that once a society becomes this economically advanced (Great Recession and all), there are more people with more time on their hands than ever before. Before things got so advanced, parents would have to throw their children out of the nest well before age 25 or 35. Why? Because they couldn’t afford to take care of them. Everybody understood that if you don’t work, you die. No parent of any grown, able-bodied young adult had a choice to be “codependent” or anything of the kind. There was no “failure to launch” as we frequently find today with young people in their 20s, or even into their 30s. You worked and did your part for your own survival, or you died.

In middle-class America, that’s certainly no longer the case. As a result, young people who are unfocused or not psychologically driven to a career no longer have the raw, immediate and obvious survival motive to get away from the technology (or whatever their distractions du jour) since survival no longer requires it.

I can’t tell you the number of young people I’ve talked to in their 20s or even 30s who live with their parents, who aren’t necessarily addicted to drugs or alcohol, but who lack ambition and purpose in a way that bothers even themselves (which is why they’re talking to me.) They know their parents, while perhaps somewhat resentful about housing them after so many years, aren’t going to throw them out on the street. For whatever reasons, it’s difficult for them to develop a set of career ambitions, and since the requirement for survival is no longer compelling they naturally gravitate toward the escapist pleasures brought about by technology.

“Have you seen a rise in young adult depression over your years of practice and, if so, what would you credit this to?”

Dr. Hurd replies: I haven’t studied this, but in my 25+ years of practice I do see a cross-section of people (race, gender, socioeconomic background). It’s not that I’m seeing more clinical depression (or substance abuse) than in the past. What I am noticing is a steady decrease in the ambition and sense of motivation and purpose I once saw.

While it’s tempting (and perhaps with good reason) to blame this or that political or social policy, I suspect it’s more deep-rooted than that. It has to do with less of a need for people to survive by their work, which means that if you’re going to work, then you’ll need to have some serious career ambition.

As in the past, some people have high career ambition, and some do not. This is nothing new. But once sheer physical survival becomes more of an assured thing, then the temptation is there to drift into fantasy play.

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