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Escaping to a Happy Place Is Okay

Escapism is a legitimate psychological refuge for the weary.

Key points

  • Watching and reading stories that contain more kindness than cruelty is healthier psychologically than the opposite. 
  • Brutality in fiction brutalises readers, while kindness has a soothing effect.
  • Indulging in pleasant and kind escapism provides a decent imitation of happiness.

We all like a diversion from the mundane rigors of daily life. Life pressures can be difficult to tolerate and often come with the added attributes of being quite persistent and monotonous. Life without entertainment is stressful, as well as boring,

If we are trying to stop ruminating about money problems or forget a physical pain for a while, a pleasant Doris Day film could perhaps do the trick, but we often go for edgier options. Popular choices in TV services and novels tend to contain a truly staggering degree of unpleasantness. Frankly, I personally don't share or even understand the attraction that watching or reading about awful tragedies and extreme violence holds for many.

However, it is worth mentioning that the older one gets, the less inclined one feels to be gratuitously exposed to the world's nastiness, whether in real life or fiction. This is because an older person is more likely to have experienced life events that he would rather forget, and a sadistic scene in a Tarantino film might painfully evoke.

Many fairy tales are equally horrid. Like those compiled by the Grimm brothers, the traditional ones functioned as vehicles for the transmission of moral values and social rules and were often contained in their episodes of unspeakable cruelty.

Escapism And Perfect Utopias

The antidote to all this is escapism. I am referring here to those films, TV series, and novels in which everything is pretty, everyone is kind, the music is sweet, and there are no threats of any type to be found in the narrative. Not one hair is out of place in these utopias; the dresses are gorgeous, the colours vibrant, everything is immaculate, and the characters don't have lasting negative emotions. No "pathos" of any kind exists in such stories.

To be precise, there may still be a suggestion of horribleness even here (think of the Nazis in The Sound of Music), but this is an indirect and distant threat, which we know will be eventually overcome. The bathroom in The Brady Bunch (a top-rated early 70s TV show) famously didn't have a toilet bowl in it. No toilet was necessary because the characters in shows like The Brady Bunch don't have bodily needs. Similarly, they don't emit any odours or have any unpleasant illnesses.

I recently watched Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire, a rather silly story, which expects us to believe that a pretty Hepburn, in her twenties, would fall in love instantly and spontaneously with Astaire, who was nearly 60. But who cares when everything in the film is so pleasing to the eyes and the ears. It is surely significant that the film was made a mere 12 years after an awful war in human history. The world clearly wanted to forget, and these kinds of films provided a perfect vehicle for forgetting.

Can we really escape to a happy place?

Admittedly, the pure escapist genre seems to be on its way out, except perhaps in some Bollywood films and pulp romantic fiction, but we still have large escapist archives at our disposal. Empirically, the jury is still out whether watching violent films makes people violent or whether they allow natural violent impulses to be sublimated into harmless fantasy.

Is it also possible that people violently inclined are more likely to consume this type of fiction? Intuitively, however, one strongly suspects that watching and reading stories that contain more kindness than cruelty will be healthier psychologically than the opposite.

Personally, I actually like art-house cinema and cerebral novels, as long as the quality of the product amply compensates for any unpleasantness in them.

At the end of the day, brutality brutalises. By the same token, I do not doubt that pleasant and kind escapism has a soothing effect on our minds. As I keep saying in this blog, happiness doesn't really exist, but escapism gives us a decent imitation of it.