Is fiction as escapism healthy? A reader recently contacted me with the following questions:
- What makes you pick up a fiction book?
- Have you ever selected a fiction book as a means of escapism from your problems?
- Many people read fiction as a means of escapism from daily problems and challenging circumstances. Do you think this practice is healthy? If yes why, if no why?
- Are there any downsides to using fiction as a way to escape our reality?
I answer each one in turn.
Q: What makes you pick up a fiction book?
A: Often fiction offers that gateway to another world, that’s different to yours – the opportunity to vicariously experience something you’d absolutely love to but cannot in your present reality. Alternatively, fiction allows you to escape your current reality which might be challenging right now.
When I am looking for either that incredible vicarious experience or just an escape from current reality, I’ll pick up a fiction book. I love disappearing down rabbit holes, so I’d call myself a ‘cluster’ reader - I.e. I might end up focusing on one genre with a specific style or one author whose work I love. For example, I really enjoy reading the Japanese author Mieko Kawakami’s work and have been devouring her latest novel, All the Lovers in the Night after completing her previous books, Heaven and Breasts and Eggs.
I do also enjoy an element of surprise, so if there is a book that’s controversial or covers an unusual theme, it will definitely catch my eye and I’ll most likely finish it in one go!
Q: Have you ever picked a fiction book as a means of escapism from your problems?
A: Absolutely! Sometimes we need that fantasy and escapism as a way to take a break from the painful moments of reality. In the past, if I have been struggling with a romantic relationship or experienced a break up, I’ve picked up books on romance. I have been a huge fan of Sally Rooney’s books which completely nail themes of longing and loss in romantic relationships and yet allow us to explore this safely from a distance since the story focuses on the protagonist – yet we feel we have been empathised with, understood, heard and even validated – and hence unconsciously we may be drawn to fiction stories that resonate with our own experience.
Q: Many people read fiction as a means of escapism from daily problems and challenging circumstances. Do you think this practice is healthy? If yes why, if no why?
A: When we read a great fiction book — we experience a certain sense of joy, happiness or satisfaction. Beyond reading a great story it is often the striking connection we feel to the characters and the fact that the book resonates with us. All the elements of storytelling have hit the right buttons deep within us and released a whole dose of serotonin that allows us to experience a feel-good moment.
That feel-good moment comprises a sense of belonging and being part of a greater story, where we momentarily escape from the challenges and hardships of our own life. This promotes our mental being and hence given these benefits, I would say that this practice of reading fiction as a form of escapism is definitely healthy.
And the reason why fiction is so great? It’s better than the real world — it allows us to use our imagination and access aspects of our unconscious that we would never be able to tap into otherwise. These illuminating moments through the use of words stringed together can sometimes be more powerful than any psychotherapy conducted by a psychoanalyst.
In my time as a book therapist, I have observed the following: the practice of reading fiction whilst is also educational, expanding our knowledge and experience of the world, connecting us with people that we would not otherwise connect with, extending our empathetic capabilities, and safely submerging us into an imaginative virtual reality that is better than that created by any technology.
Q: Are there any downsides to using fiction as a way to escape our reality?
A: Healthy escapism is simply a form of distraction to give us the headspace to get through a difficult phase or moment. Sometimes it is simply that space to have some time to take a break from overthinking so that you can have more clarity when you do come back to your issue in the present moment. Our imaginations are the perfect place to seek refuge from our mental health triggers.
The power of distraction, which is essentially escapism, was tested in a study where the pain levels of children were assessed during a blood test. Those children who were given distraction cards, experienced the lowest pain and anxiety, implying that distraction can reduce these. Accordingly, there is a place for escapism to offer beneficial benefits for difficult, fleeting emotions and painful mental states.
Fiction books, in particular, allow our imaginations to come alive and can be a wonderful tool for reducing stress. Whilst reading we are offered time and space to take a break and gain some relief from our daily issues. It is important to strike a balance and make sure escapism does become an addictive habit where we are constantly relying on it as a form of pain avoidance. At some point we do need to address our issues.
You might like our other Q&A posts in our Ask the Bibliotherapist Blog:
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