Landscape view of a runner on a grassy hill
(Photo: Jim Fryer/Brakethrough Media)
Sweat Science

Time Outside Can Feel Like an Escape. But Your Mindset Matters.

There are both healthy and harmful ways to get away from it all, psychologists point out

Landscape view of a runner on a grassy hill
Jim Fryer/Brakethrough Media

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Which of these activities is not like the others: summiting a majestic peak, slaloming down a slope of fresh powder, floating through a blissful 10K run on a spring morning, blowing your rival’s head off with your Dragon’s Breath Sniper rifle to win a round of Fortnite?

Three of those take you out into the real world, dissolving your ego in the face of nature’s grandeur and making the slings and arrows of daily life seem insignificant by comparison. And then there’s sitting in a darkened room for hours on end, manipulating pixels in the flickering light of your high-definition monitor. Sure, it’s a form of escape—but it’s the wrong kind of escape. Reams of psychological research have found that those who play video games to evade their problems are more likely to be anxious and depressed. Escapism-based motivation is one of the American Psychiatric Association’s criteria for internet gaming disorder, a proposed diagnosis in its most recent manual of mental disorders.

That’s how I’ve always seen it, at least. But a series of recent studies offer a more nuanced picture of escapism, one that threatens to prick my bubble of smugness. Seemingly benign or even virtuous forms of escapism, like getting outside for daily exercise, can become unhealthy habits. And conversely, playing video games or binge-watching Netflix can be positive and mood-boosting ways of coping with life’s challenges. It’s not the activity itself that matters, according to Frode Stenseng, a psychologist at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. It’s your mindset.

I have no trouble accepting that my daily run might be a form of escapism. In a very literal sense, I’m leaving behind my desk, my overflowing inbox, and my sinkful of dirty dishes, stepping out the door, and running away. The same is true for other outdoor pursuits: “Backpacking is an escape in both physical and mental terms,” Stenseng notes. Psychological literature, in contrast, focuses on a more metaphorical type of escape. In the 1980s and 1990s, the social psychologist Roy Baumeister introduced the idea of “escape from the self.” We’re constantly ruminating over past failures and fretting about future ones, so we seek ways to distract ourselves from this unpleasant navel-gazing. You can do this by watching a movie, hammering a workout, wolfing down a big bowl of ice cream, or, in extreme cases, Baumeister suggested, even by contemplating suicide.

This is a pretty negative view of escapism. But when you dig a little deeper, there is a paradox. Some of the hallmarks of escaping from the self—reduced self-awareness, a narrowing of attention, focusing on the present rather than the past or future—sound suspiciously like the late psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, which is widely seen as a highly desirable state. So why do we praise flow and condemn escapism? Stenseng’s view, which he first laid out in a 2012 paper, is that we should broaden our concept of escapism to include both negative and positive elements, which he dubbed self-
suppression and self-expansion. The former is when you’re running away from bad feelings; the latter is when you’re seeking out good feelings.

We’re constantly ruminating over past failures and fretting about future ones, so we seek ways to distract ourselves from this unpleasant navel-gazing.

Earlier this year in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Stenseng and his colleagues published a study of 227 recreational runners, in which they tried to tease out the signs of self-suppressing and self-expanding escapism with a series of questionnaires. Runners who agreed with statements like “When I run, I try to learn new things about myself” or “When I run, I open up for experiences that enrich my life” were demonstrating self-expansion. Those who agreed with “When I run, I shut out the difficult things I do not want to think about,” on the other hand, were self-suppressing.

The key findings were the links between escapism and the results of another questionnaire, called the Satisfaction with Life Scale. Higher levels of self-expansion correlated with greater subjective well-being; higher levels of self-suppression were associated with lower well-being. Additionally, self-suppression was more strongly associated with signs of exercise dependence, marked by an unhealthy reliance on running as a coping mechanism. What’s most notable about these results is how closely they echo the findings of a similar study that Stenseng published in 2021, which studied escapism in video-game playing and online-streaming habits. In both cases, escapism could be either positive or negative, depending on the underlying motivations.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not planning to trade my running shoes for a Scuf Infinity-4PS Pro video-game controller. There are a lot of things I love about running beyond its temporary reprieve from emails and deadlines: its physicality, the beauty of the riverside trail where I log most of my miles, the social time with my training partners. The same is true for my other outdoor pursuits. It’s great that a week of canoeing in the Canadian wilderness enforces an extended digital detox, but it’s also great to see a moose, run a rapid, and sleep with a billion stars overhead.

In other words, my escapist motivations include a mix of self-suppression and self-expansion. That’s probably true for most of us, so the trick is to ensure we’re leaning into the latter. But how? “I think self-expansion motivation may facilitate mindfulness,” Stenseng says. Indeed, the telltale signs of self-suppression in questionnaires, like “I try to suppress my problems,” sound very much like the opposite of nonjudgmental self-awareness, one of the core tenets of mindfulness. It takes energy to suppress negative thoughts and emotions, Stenseng says, so it’s better to allow them to surface—even in the middle of a run—acknowledge them, and move on.

The most powerful message that I take from Stenseng’s work is the distinction between avoidance and approach—between escaping from and escaping to. Whether it’s my morning run, the next episode of The Night Agent, or this summer’s vacation, I want to make sure I’m choosing escapes that I would love, even if (imagine!) my inbox and sink were both empty.

From July/August 2023 Lead Photo: Jim Fryer/Brakethrough Media