We seem to have a love-hate relationship with fantasy. Sometimes we go to great lengths to deliberately break from reality and have an experience that is fantastic, unreal or out of this world. On the other hand, sometimes we have a more critical perspective and say things like, “Get real already” or “Wake up and smell the coffee” or “Get your head out of the clouds.” When does engaging in fantasy help, or hinder, our mental health?

Fantasy may be deliberate or unintended

In some ways we consciously pursue a fantasy experience. There is an element of this when we pick up a novel, go to a movie, plan a fantasy cruise or a Disney vacation. In a guided meditation, we may choose to imagine ourselves relaxing on a warm beach or near a babbling brook. Some create fictional avatars for role-playing games or social interactions in virtual worlds online. We strive to get away from it all and to dive into something that is unreal.

There are other ways in which we engage in fantasy that are not conscious or deliberate.

We may be drawn to, or turned off by, people we don’t know, but have only a fantasy of what they’re like. Experiences like love at first sight, falling in love and the honeymoon period usually include some unconscious projections of how wonderful things will be. Without intending to, we may daydream in a trance-like state while driving, unaware of the signs on the road and distance traveled. Sometimes we slip into fantasy without knowing it.

The pros and cons of fantasy

To fantasize is to imagine, and great things have come from those who are smart, talented and courageous enough to imagine that which is not yet real. Advances in technology and medicine, masterworks of architects, musicians or artists, or breakthroughs in human rights may not have occurred if someone hadn’t dreamt them first. We encourage people to dream big and to use their imaginations to create a better life or better world.

At the same time, we value being grounded, realistic and practical. Practical dreams are one thing; pipe dreams are another. Fantasizing about making it big in Hollywood or in the Major Leagues might become a reality for a very few, but might also be dangerous if one invests all without having an alternate plan. Some may be at risk of living too much in fantasy—in a video game, casino or in an imaginary relationship—and may pay a heavy price.

Fantasy affects reality

The fantasy we may have about a person, a college, a job opportunity or a relocation out-of-state may affect not only how we feel about those things but how we behave towards them. The fantasies we have may partly determine whether we move toward or away from such opportunities, and may have a significant impact on the direction of our lives.

Teasing out whether fantasy is working for or against us can be difficult. One way to evaluate this is to ask if the fantasy is bringing us closer to, or farther from, our life goals. Is the fantasy helping us to move forward, stay stuck or slip into reverse in life? If we spend too much time and energy merely dreaming about that new relationship, college degree, career or retirement without taking steps forward, the fantasy may be holding us back. But if we use the fantasy to paint a picture of what our new life might look like and envision how to get there, we might acquire a sense of direction and some courage to take the risk to make the change. When taking a break from reality, perhaps it’s wise to replant our feet on the ground once in a while, to check our perspective and progress before we dream off again.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of anitapeppers/ morguefile.com