9 minutes to read

Escapism is negatively charged. Let’s change that.

By spending time doing what you enjoy, it becomes easier dealing with what you don’t enjoy.

The spending of time and money on hobbies and other leisure activities is an important ethical consideration. How much is too much when your time (and money) could be spent in “better” ways? Here I argue that escapism can be healthy and make life better for you and those around you.

The problem with all leisure activities

No matter what you choose to do in your spare time, there’s always some ethical considerations. With some activities more than others, of course. Let’s consider gaming. Much of the gaming industry cynically capitalizes on gamers, having succeeded to such an extent that “addictive” is used on the “plus” side of the equation in reviews and then proudly put on the game covers. It’s no secret that there’s a highly problematic tribal mentality featuring misogyny and general intolerance (especially in some communities), and the working conditions for game developers are often less than healthy.

There is however at least one ethical consideration common to all hobbies and leisure activities: The spending of time and money.

Gaming, for example, normally entails spending large amounts of money on gaming computers, consoles, and games, as well as spending large amounts of time playing the games. Many other hobbies require a similar investment of time and money. Even leisure activities which are not necessarily associated with monetary expenses – such as watching TV – may entail a significant investment of time (not necessarily a conscious investment).

Some specific ethical issues you need to consider are these: When does this spending of time and money become an unnecessary luxury? When does it become selfish? When does is become downright unethical with regards to the genuine need others have for your time and money, such as through charities and volunteering? How much escapism is okay, and when does it become a waste of time? And how do you differentiate between a waste of time and a valuable experience?

I don’t think there’s a final answer to any of these questions, but the subject deserves careful reflection and discussion due to its pervasiveness. I’ll focus on time spending, but the reasoning is similar for monetary expenses.

Some notes on escapism

First we need to get some common footing on what escapism is, preferably without being too technical. In researching this post I came across a PhD dissertation by Frode Stenseng titled A dualistic approach to leisure activity engagement: on the dynamics of passion, escapism, and life satisfaction. I’ll summarize and simplify (drastically) the parts relevant to this discussion.

There are two kinds of escapism – two ways of lose yourself in your passion. For both kinds the fundamental motivation is the feeling of flow (being “in the zone”, which in itself is psychologically rewarding). The difference lies in the motivation for achieving this feeling – why you want to experience flow. In short, you can be fleeing from uncomfortable thoughts (called self-suppression), or you can be actively seeking positive experiences (called self-expansion). Self-suppression is associated with negative aspects like not fitting in, poor mental adjustment, conflicts at home about the spending of time, and lack of personal development as a result of engaging with the activity. Self-expansion is associated with positive aspects like flexibility, positive emotional results, and personal development from the activity.

In either case, escapism is closely related to the experience of flow. When you’re so engrossed in an activity that the only thing on your mind is the activity itself, you have escaped reality.

I will now make the argument that escapism is not a waste of time regardless of the activity, and regardless of whether you’re seeking to expand yourself or take a break from hardships.

Why spend time on leisure activities?

There is always a certain pressure (both from within yourself and from your surroundings), possibly fueled by the way modern society works, that it’s important to manage your limited time effectively. There never seems to be sufficient time to do everything we want to do.

We spend a lot of time on leisure activities. In a couple of studies cited by the aforementioned dissertation, the subjects spent 8–10 hours each week on their favorite activity. Let’s play the “why” game for a bit. Why do we spend this much time on these activities? An obvious answer is, “because it’s fun”. But this is rather simplistic and obscures nuances best brought into the light. Simply put, why is the activity fun?

Is it because it gives a sense of achievement? Because it’s an escape from reality, temporarily taking you away from the stress and challenges of everyday life (self-suppression)? Because it’s a valuable experience that changes the way you look at the world (self-expansion)? Because it directly or indirectly delights the people around you? Or do we spend large amounts of time on our favorite activities to get more tangible benefits, such as improving our health by exercising?

Willpower is rechargeable, not a fixed trait

Before we fully address the “why” of spending time on leisure activities, we need some common ground regarding the concept of willpower.

Some seem to think that willpower is a fixed character trait. In my mind it makes more sense to think about willpower as something you expend throughout the day and have to recharge if you want to keep your spirits up and stay motivated and energized (this idea is called ego depletion).

You’re expending willpower when you’re doing something you don’t want to be doing – or to be more precise, when you’d rather be doing something else. The more you’d rather do something else, the more difficult it is to keep going.

You often need willpower to fulfill your daily duties and responsibilities. If your willpower stores are low, you’ll have a hard time doing that. Willpower has to be recharged. An effective way to do this is to do exactly what you want, and get in a state of flow, where you’re completely engrossed in what you’re doing.

The more willpower you have, the more capable you’ll be of performing boring or mentally exhausting tasks such as doing chores, tackling personal issues, et cetera, and the less you’ll have to fight yourself to get started.

A possible “why”: Escaping to recharge

The plot quickly thickens, and we turn back to the “why” of spending time on leisure activities. Of course, for specifics, everyone has a different “why”. But more generally, the issue is about prioritizing how you spend your time. How much time is it acceptable to spend on the activity? Couldn’t you rather spend your time on other, more rewarding activities? Like reading one of today’s zillion books on personal development? Become a volunteer and help people in need?

I’ll just posit that, simply put, one of many overarching goals in life should be to spend your time in such a manner that you are equipped to properly handle obligations and challenges you are facing. With this said, the stage is set for making the following assertion:

Using a limited amount of time on any activity you are passionate about, unless the activity directly harms others, is a Good Thing™ in the sense that it recharges your willpower and thus makes you better equipped to handle your obligations and responsibilities.

In other words: You escape from reality to recharge and better master the challenges of everyday life that await when you return.

Neither escapism nor flow was mentioned explicitly here, but since flow is an effective method of recharging your willpower, they are very closely related to the point I’m making. Also note that I make no differentiation between “good” and “bad” escapism (self-expansion and self-suppression). If you are stressed out and need to take a break to recharge, that’s fine as long as you’re in control. You don’t have to aim at expanding yourself every time you sit down with an activity you’re passionate about – it’s okay to just recharge.

The point was a bit of a mouthful though, so let’s frame it more generally (if perhaps a bit simplistic) so as to get the underlying idea clearly across:

By spending time doing what you enjoy, it becomes easier dealing with what you don’t enjoy.

Some caveats

Of course, when submerging yourself in an activity to the point of “escaping from reality”, there are some warnings to be heeded. The wording “limited amount of time” is paramount: If you spend so much time on an activity that it compromises your ability to fulfill your responsibilities, it becomes counterproductive. It’s often dangerously tempting to stay in your own “Happy Place”, whether that’s behind the camera, on a mountaintop, or in front of the keyboard.

Additionally, spending time socializing will also be a good way to recharge for most people (whether in the company of a single good friend or at a large party). Some might even claim that socializing is absolutely essential in the long run irrespective of the concept of recharging. Spending too much time on hobbies can take time away from socializing, and could therefore be damaging in this respect too.

Finally, the activity could be so fun that even if you manage to put it away, you’ll still really want to go on doing it. This means that the activity is in fact hurting your willpower.

Summary

Humans aren’t inexhaustible workhorses. Self-actualization is high on people’s priorities – we want to do more than simply eat, sleep and do chores. Everybody experiences hardship from time to time, and everybody have a given capacity for what they’re capable of before their energy stores are spent. The batteries have to be recharged, and that can often be done by doing stuff you enjoy and find rewarding – activities which temporarily puts the toil and moil of everyday life at a healthy distance.

As long as it’s in moderation – as everything else in life, if you’ll allow me that platitude – I’m of the opinion that doing whatever you like can be constructive and rewarding, without having to worry whether it’s a waste of time. You can and should spend time on your favorite activity without worrying about it being a waste. Whether it’s books, comics, stamps, gaming or anything else – enjoy your hobbies and leisure activities! Because by spending time on what you enjoy, it becomes easier dealing with what you don’t enjoy.

Just don’t put it off for too long, okay?


The introduction (and the idea that turned into this post) is inspired by Melody’s On Defending Myself from Videogames. Oliver Emberton’s Life is a game. This is your strategy guide was also a highly inspiring read, especially with regards to recharging willpower. For further reading I can recommend chapter 1 and 2 (approx. 20 pages) of the dissertation I referred to. Cover image by Segelschiff.

Thread on reddit here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Notify me of via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.