Why Escapist Fantasies Are So Compelling

I spent the last month writing a lot about work and careers, and I want to get away from that a bit to better fulfill the promise of this blog: Connecting and condensing the world’s most useful information, not all of which is about careerism, obviously. So today, we’ll discuss why people seek out escapist fantasies. Perhaps, I’ll eventually write about what it takes to create a worthy world to which people can escape.

An escapist fantasy is a form of fiction that provides a psychological escape from thoughts of everyday life by figuratively immersing the reader / viewer in exotic situations or activities. Often, such fantasies fall into the categories of romance, sci-fi, high fantasy, or thrillers; however, they can be hybrids or elude classification altogether. One of our society’s favorite escapist fantasies, Game of Thrones, crosses categories seamlessly to great acclaim.

But the above doesn’t tell us what escapism really is. The Oxford English Dictionary has defined it as “the tendency to seek, or the practice of seeking, distraction from what normally has to be endured.” Simply put, people want to shirk the unpleasant, tedious, and difficult realities of daily life.

In my view, our drive for escapism arises from expectation-setting during childhood. Growing up, all of our fantasies can be equally real. You can become a firefighter or princess or astronaut or whatever your heart desires; you can afford to get caught up in the seemingly infinite potential of your life. No one warns you that the majority of your adult life is going to be pretty boring.

Day-in, day-out, you’ll do the same things like clockwork: wake up, get ready for the day, drop off the kids/ commute to work, work, pick up the kids/ commute home, make dinner, go to bed, and repeat. As a child, you’re largely shielded from the tedium of reality due to your imagination and your distance from everyday concerns like making money or keeping the household in order.

Credit for this goes to Tim Urban’s blog, Wait but Why.

But again, growing up, our views are largely informed by popular media like books and movies and Instagram. And all of those have larger-than-life protagonists (heroes and actors and influencers), so we think we can replicate those grand narratives in our own lives because that’s all we get exposed to. In fact, in 2007, teens reported that fame was their #1 aspiration in life, according to a UCLA study published in Cyberpsychology. However, fame, by definition, is extremely hard to come by.

Thus, escapist fantasies exist to mitigate the harsh reality that most of us are extras in someone else’s movie. We live vicariously through our heroes because most of us will never turn into them. To us, those people don’t do chores or clock into day jobs in the morning or deal with taxes. So to live through them, even if just for a regularly scheduled 60-min block on Sunday nights, makes the drudgery of life just a bit more bearable.

And that makes escapism all the more worthwhile. To quote Tolkien, “Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape? If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we’re partisans of liberty, then it’s our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!” So we must cherish our escapes, because sometimes, they’re all we’ve got.

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