Everyone fantasises. Indeed, most would find life intolerably dull if they did not. But some people spend the majority of their lives immersed in fantasy. This is never healthy. On the contrary, it is usually a sign of poor mental health. After all, the ability to grasp, face, and live with reality is the essence of maturity and strength.
Fantasy must first be distinguished from imagination. In general, fantasy has a negative connotation, imagination a positive one. If your son's teacher informed you that your child "has a rich imagination," you would probably take it as a compliment – even a sign of intelligence. However, if she told you that "he is a fantasist," you'd probably ask to see the school counsellor! In essence, fantasists wish to escape the real world, often because they feel inadequate, miserable or disgusted in some way. Whereas fantasy is an escape from reality, imagination is a way of entering into it more deeply. Indeed, imagination is closely related to empathy. Put another way, to develop imagination is to develop or expand awareness.
Of course, the distinction between fantasy and imagination is not of interest to psychologists alone. Politicians are often described as fantasists. A critic might accuse someone on the far left of being a fantasist when he calls for a world government or open borders. The critic would say this is childish, irresponsible fantasising: something that sounds noble but would cause chaos if actually put into practice. However, in the 19th century, when Britain's Parliament introduced laws restricting the number of hours children were allowed to work, or when New Zealand was the first nation to grant women the right to vote, that was a triumph of imagination.
Literary critics also make the distinction. If a writer is labelled a fantasist, it is usually meant as an insult. And even the Fantasy genre is often spoken of with contempt. But imagination is different. In fact, imagination is one of the most important qualities a writer needs. A great novelist or playwright must be able feel his way into the lives of others and understand (or imagine) what it is like to be them. Dickens, for example, is a great imaginative writer. He is able to step outside the prejudices of his time and sympathize with children, the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast. Even Tolkien's Lord of the Rings could be described as a great work of imagination rather than fantasy. After all, this is not pleasant escapism. He is describing an agonizing struggle against darkness, evil, and the lust for power.
In 1977, the psychiatrist George Vaillant published his famous study into the lives of a group of Harvard University students. Vaillant had followed them over a 30 year period, using questionnaires and interviews to chart their lives and evaluate their mental health. He was especially interested in the psychological defences these students developed. In Adaptation to Life, his account of the study, Vaillant divided the defences into three types: the immature, the neurotic, and the mature. Immature defences he regarded as the worst, while neurotic defences are the most common and mature defences the most healthy. Fantasising was widespread among those who had developed immature defences.
In other words, when life became too hard, fantasists pretended things were different to the way they really were. At its most extreme, you have the man whose girlfriend has left him for another man and who cannot accept the reality of this. Instead of facing the pain, working through the grief and then beginning a new relationship, he sits outside her house, sends her messages and tells work colleagues and friends they are still together. Many stalkers are also fantasists. When questioned by the police, they will refuse to accept that the person they are stalking fears and dislikes them. Some will claim that their victim is just playing hard to get or won't admit to her true feelings. Even projection is a form of fantasising. A man who hits his wife may claim that he is really the victim because she constantly provokes him – if only she would behave there would be no need for violence. Now he is in trouble with the police and it is all her fault. Again, this is someone who cannot face up to reality.
As Vaillant himself pointed out, fantasy is common in those with narcissistic personality disorders. Hitler, for example, was a classic fantasist. As the Russians closed in from the east and the British and Americans from the west, he was demanding that his generals counterattack with divisions which no longer existed. In Vaillant's opinion, fantasy is not only unhealthy but harmful. For example, he found that those Harvard students most inclined to escape into fantasy were also the ones least likely to have any close friends. One of the problems with fantasy is that it takes you away from the moment – and who can form an intimate bond with someone who isn't fully there?
Fantasy is also common among those who suffer feelings of inferiority. The Austrian Psychoanalyst Alfred Adler argued that what really motivates people is a desire for power and status. But most never secure enough wealth, influence or power to satisfy them, and so go through life harbouring deep feelings of resentment and inferiority. When that happens, argued Adler, they overcompensate. In other words, they adopt absurdly unrealistic goals, ones they can never hope to achieve. And these often involve a great deal of fantasising. For example, a man with a low status job who knows he is unattractive to women and is frequently mocked by his colleagues, may claim that he intends to quit his job and join the army, or hitchhike around the world. Though in reality he hasn't the confidence to do either, the boasting and fantasising in themselves makes him feel better.
Though a little fantasising is both harmless and natural, if taken too far it can lead to paralysis and stagnation. Fantasists tend to become so lost in their own world that the real world ceases to matter. It can also result in a sense of detachment, not only from the bad in life but also from the good. Life is hard and everyone needs something to help them cope – but fantasy isn't the answer.