What Is Escapism? How Does It Cost Me?

Marti writes in with a question about the second step of Your Money or Your Life:

Step two, and I’m sure you remember, is about figuring out what hourly wage you’re actually earning at your job, once you factor in the commute, clothes for the job, lunch food and fast food, etc. I’m looking at the category “Escape Entertainment” and I’m a little stuck. Yes, I have cable. Yes, I have a Netflix subscription. Yes, I follow several weekly TV shows. But I don’t necessarily consider those escape entertainment. I never sit down in front of the TV just to channel surf and zone out. If the TV is on, it’s so I can explore characters and stories of a fictional world that I thoroughly enjoy, much the way I would a good book. “Bones” for example, is a show that I enjoy and watch regularly. “Stargate: SG-1″ is one of the shows that my husband and I have on our Netflix queue because we’re huge sci-fi fans.

Yes, I know that the time spent watching those programs could probably be “better” spent playing a game, or going for a walk, or reading, but I don’t consider them escapist entertainment. Am I wrong? Is TV (or for that matter, a pulp-fiction novel) by its very definition an escape, no matter how you look at it? And what about movies? I’m an avid movie-goer. Not because I hate my job (it’s not perfect, but it’s interesting and challenging and if, at the end of two years, I’ll be moving anyway, so it’s really only temporary), but because I truly enjoy movies.

But am I missing the point? The authors write, “Notice the common phrase, ‘escape entertainment.’ Escape from what? … If your experience of life were consistently fulfilling and exciting, from what would you escape?” (pg. 62 – 1999 ed.) And that begs the question, am I actually using those hours in front of the TV or movie screen to escape, and just telling myself that I want to be doing it?

So what do you think? Should I factor the expenses of those movies and subscriptions and the time of watching them, into my “actual hourly wage” as they suggest, or should I leave them out, because I’m not using them as a way to decompress or escape from my job?

Marti raises several very good points here that are each worth adressing.

Not All Entertainment Is “Escape Entertainment”
First of all, there’s a big difference between escape entertainment and ordinary leisure time One is part of a healthy normal life, while the other can be a sign of significant trouble.

I would distinguish between the two as thus: entertainment contributes a significant positive value to one’s life that’s independent of the other aspects of one’s life. Escape entertainment contributes a short-term positive, but only in the sense that it’s reducing the impact of a negative in one’s life.

The reason this distinction is so confusing is that escape entertainment and ordinary entertainment have a lot of overlap.

Take me, for example. One of my favorite television shows is Mad Men. I often enjoy watching it in the late evening after the kids are in bed. It makes me think about a lot of social and cultural issues: what constitutes a marriage? What impact does advertising have in our lives? The questions go on and on. Beyond that, I simply enjoy the well-written plots and characters in the show.

Yet, for a week in the middle of October, when my book deadline was staring me in the face, I had a tremendous case of writer’s block. I was nervous and anxious about the book. And during that week, I spent quite a few hours watching old episodes of Mad Men.

However, this time, it wasn’t enjoyable entertainment. It was escape entertainment. It was helping me to avoid something I didn’t want to face.

In other words, it’s not about the entertainment, it’s about the context. Why are you enjoying this entertainment? Is it because it fulfills you or is it because you need to unwind? Is it because you’re trying to avoid working on something else or is it because the entertainment itself is bringing value into your life? There’s no cut-and-dried answer for this – it’s one you have to look inside yourself to discover.

Do We Need to Escape?
The next question is whether or not escape entertainment actually fills a role in our life. Do we need escape entertainment to unwind or to reduce the stress we feel from our work?

My belief is that we do need an escape valve of some sort in order to help us deal with stress. Escape entertainment is an easy valve for it, but the problem is that it’s a horribly inefficient valve. Rather than focusing your energy on calming down and unwinding, you split your attention between the entertainment and the valve you’re trying to release. The end result? You don’t get much value out of the entertainment and you’re still stressed out.

As I sat there watching Mad Men, I’d often realize that I didn’t really feel any better. I’d also often realize that I had little idea of what was actually happening on the show. I would space out and think about the work I needed to do or about other things I was avoiding. Afterwards, I didn’t feel much relief at all.

The Cost of Escapism
Another problem with escape entertainment is that it’s often expensive for what you get. A new video game bought as fulfilling entertainment (I’m a big believer that interactive entertainment can be very fulfilling) is very worthwhile. A new video game bought as escape entertainment is money spent just to delay an unpleasant feeling.

Even worse, the time invested in escape entertainment is often immense. I remember countless hours playing Warcraft II in the dorms as I avoided my schoolwork, for example. I remember at one point during my previous job, I would come home and watch two episodes of Lost every single night after work.

Those hours lost are themselves a cost, since they’re not actively fulfilling you nor are they reducing your stress levels. You could likely be spending those hours doing something to actually eliminate whatever it is that is bothering you so deeply.

A Better Solution
If you wish to be entertained, seek entertainment. If you wish to de-stress, de-compress, or escape from the situation, do that. Go into a quiet room, turn off the lights, sit down, and close your eyes. Breathe in slowly and deeply. Try to clear your mind of all thoughts. Let the relaxation wash over you.

For the last year and a half of my previous job, this was my routine when I would arrive home from work. I would literally go in, lay down on the bed for about twenty minutes with my eyes closed, and think about nothing. I’d breathe in deeply, breathe out deeply and slowly, and just let my mind and body drift away. After twenty minutes, I would feel tremendously refreshed.

I also find that this works as a great de-stresser and a powerful way to break through writer’s block. Even better, one can easily do this in the shower. Go home after work, take a shower, and then do this under the water.

Here’s the take-home message: escape entertainment can be dangerously expensive in terms of both time and money. Find ways to split the two and you’re much better off – escape through meditation and prayer to quickly relax, and entertain yourself in ways that truly add a positive value to your life. Both avenues are often far less expensive than pure escape entertainment and leave your life in a better place.

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  1. Courtney says:

    Ugh, if I wanted to escape, I sure wouldn’t watch Mad Men. That show is depressing. I get enough of amoral people behaving badly in real life.

  2. We do need to escape our routines to avoid overdosing on reality. But there must be some restraint.

  3. George says:

    I’m sure this topic will generate lots of responses and I’m eager to read them. For now, though I’m going to escape back to editing video from a car race…

  4. I’ve found that the big difference between entertainment and escapism is that while both relieve stress, entertainment makes me feel upbeat after I’m done — I feel as though I’ve done something positive with my friends or family or for myself that has improved my life and/or my relationships in some way. Escapism, on the other hand, leaves me feeling like I’ve been wasting my time. It might have been fun, but once I’m done, I think to myself with disgust, “wow, I could have spent that time a lot more usefully.”

  5. Lenore says:

    I was thinking about not watching “Mad Men” anymore because it has become stark and sad of late, but last night’s episode has me re-hooked. Don Draper had to apologize to so many people, and I hope he ends up having to grovel for his wife Betty’s forgiveness too. Talk about someone who is all about projecting a quality appearance but emotionally bankrupt. Once in awhile he shows some humanity, but mostly he reminds me of the people “Stop Acting Rich” describes.

    Is “Mad Men” an escape for me? It usually makes me think, so probably not. Even a trashy novel or video game can have recreational worth if it makes you reflect on your own life or zone out in a restorative way. When we turn to an activity in avoidance of responsibilities or despite negative consequences, it has become a problem. My use of the internet nowadays expands my horizons, keeps me connected to people I care about and saves me money. A few years ago, I was a full-fledged online addict, visiting purient websites, sleeping with strangers and wasting tons of money on eBay and other shopping sites. It can be hard to detect when a harmless activity for many becomes detrimental for you, but it’s possible to become addicted to almost anything.

  6. Todd says:

    I’m surprised this post didn’t generate more responses. It was really insightful.

    I think the key distinction is in “recreation” vs. “entertainment.” Entertainment is fleeting and often mindless, whereas recreation is just what is says “re-creation,” allowing us to develop our minds and/or bodies and to re-create ourselves in a positive way.

    Entertainment is usually a waste of money (like the $200 we spent on one day at a theme park last summer, where we were all miserable by 6 p.m.), but recreation is worth the money because it enhances your life and you often talk about it for years and years (like the $500 vacation when we all hiked in the Rocky Mountains).

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