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What Shifting Can Teach Us About Happiness

Last week, I read an article about a phenomenon I’d never heard of before—permashifting. Shifting, or reality shifting, is a practice intended to help its users “shift” their consciousness out of their current reality, and into a different (purportedly better) one. Permashifting, just as the name implies, is where shifters attempt to move their consciousness to a different reality—for good. And though the concept was new to me, shifting has gained increasing popularity through platforms like TikTok, where the tag #shifting has over 9.1 billion views.

Shifting as Escapism

The concept of shifting might strike some people as a little bit out there. So why has the practice (or at least the idea of it) exploded so dramatically?

The likely answer: escapism. According to interviews with former shifters conducted by Insider, they were motivated by the chance to escape an increasingly stressful and scary reality. The former shifters, all aged 17-18, told Insider they wanted to shift because it gave them a sense of “excitement and opportunity,” because they were “unhappy” with their life, and in the worst case, because they were depressed and suicidal. The idea of shifting, with its promise of a perfect dream world, appealed for obvious reasons. (Read more: Insider).

In general terms, shifting is not much different from daydreaming about your next vacation, binge-watching TV, or immersing yourself in a video game. All of these are examples of things that many people use as a way of coping with an increasingly scary, stressful, or even unbearably difficult reality.

Does Escapism Hurt or Harm Your Mental Health?

There’s no easy answer. (Shocker). Truthfully, it's a little more gray than a simple yes or no. Escapism can actually be a healthy coping mechanism. But like anything, if taken too far, it can turn ugly—and even take a serious toll on your mental health.

If you think back to a particularly stressful or difficult time in your life, chances are you can identify some aspects of escapism in how you responded to the situation and chose to take care of yourself. For example, you don’t have to be a psychologist to understand that the explosive popularity of Animal Crossing during the COVID-19 pandemic probably had something to do with people’s desire to get away from the fear and isolation of real life, and spend time in a calm, low-stakes reality. Even timeless examples, such as turning to familiar and comforting movies, TV shows, or books when you’re feeling sick, can serve as an illustration of a perfectly healthy way to practice escapism.

The issue, of course, arises when a coping mechanism becomes an obsession, or when people find themselves spending every possible minute avoiding their actual reality. This is the case of permashifters, or "respawners," whose ultimate goal is to permanently shift away from their real lives.

Psychologist Saul Rosenthal puts it best: "People who are trying to respawn are telling us something about what's wrong with their lives, so much that they are trying to tear it up and start over. I think we should listen to them and help them find what they need, as best they can, in this life."

Escapism Vs. Mindfulness

Psychotherapist Amanda Perl explains, “escapism is the opposite of mindfulness—that is living in the moment.” Where mindfulness can help us to better appreciate and enjoy the lives that we actually have, too much escapism can cause us to feel resentful or even depressed at the prospect of having to actually live in our reality.

Becoming a happier person includes doing some of the simple, but difficult, work of training your brain to focus on the things that will actually make you happier. And when you practice escapism too frequently, it can have the insidious effect of teaching your brain that real life is the lesser, less enjoyable option.

The real world can be scary, stressful, heartbreaking, and messy. So, don’t blame yourself for wanting to escape from it every once in a while. But if you want to truly raise your happiness levels, make sure you also find time to practice mindfulness. Live in the moment when you're able to, and appreciate all of the ways that the world can also be beautiful, exhilarating, and kind.

If you or someone you love needs mental health support, please reach out to a mental health professional. A few options available from the Government of Canada are listed below.

  • General: Call 1-866-585-0445 or text WELLNESS to 686868 for youth, 741741 for adults

  • Suicide Prevention: call Talk Suicide Canada at 1-833-456-4566, or 1-866-277-3553 (Quebec)

  • Indigenous Peoples: call 1-855-242-3310 (toll-free) or connect to the Hope for Wellness chat.

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