I used to become a bit sad when I thought about how I’d never go to Hogwarts or use an invisibility cloak or send a piece of mail via owl or slug down a butterbeer with The Chosen One, and I admit I belong to a Facebook group called “I Have Trouble Dealing With The Fact That Edward Cullen Is *Fictional*”, so when I read the headline for the recent CNN article Audiences Experience ‘Avatar’ Blues, I wasn’t all that surprised.
I soon discovered, though, that the title is a bit misleading. After diving into the article, it seems these viewers are a step or two above (or, below?) just having the blues or wishing they could experience the fantasy world. Some Avatar viewers, including those who use various Avatar-related forums, “have expressed feelings of disgust with the human race and disengagement with reality,” are experiencing something similar to “separation anxiety” when the two-and-a-half hour movie ends, and are quoted as stating they’ve become “depressed” and have “contemplated suicide.”
17-year-old Ivan Hill of Sweden is just one of the seemingly many Avatar fans who has experienced feelings of depression and dissatisfaction with the state of our world after watching the movie:
“When I woke up this morning after watching Avatar for the first time yesterday, the world seemed … gray. It was like my whole life, everything I’ve done and worked for, lost its meaning,” Hill wrote on the forum. “It just seems so … meaningless. I still don’t really see any reason to keep … doing things at all. I live in a dying world.”
“One can say my depression was twofold: I was depressed because I really wanted to live in Pandora, which seemed like such a perfect place, but I was also depressed and disgusted with the sight of our world, what we have done to Earth. I so much wanted to escape reality,” Hill said.
Fortunately, the article includes one psychiatrist’s thoughts, but Dr. Stephan Quentzel, psychiatrist and Medical Director for the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, doesn’t dive too deeply:
“Virtual life is not real life and it never will be, but this is the pinnacle of what we can build in a virtual presentation so far […] It has taken the best of our technology to create this virtual world and real life will never be as utopian as it seems onscreen. It makes real life seem more imperfect.”
Avatar actor Steven Lang adds to that:
“Pandora is a pristine world and there is the synergy between all of the creatures of the planet and I think that strikes a deep chord within people that has a wishfulness and a wistfulness to it.”
I don’t know that any of the folks experiencing depression and suicidal thoughts after watching Avatar have sought professional psychiatric help, but some of them do seem to find some relief when they connect with other fans (an act of creating relationships with others that Dr. Stephan Quentzel says is “one of the keys to human happiness”), as well as in surrounding themselves with more Avatar-related goodies such as the film’s soundtrack and Avatar video games (a coping mechanism that might’ve surprised me had “Hedwig’s Theme” not been my standard driving music a few years ago).
Obviously, Avatar isn’t to blame for these reactions. Avatar is just a movie featuring a brilliant, utopian world that many people see as ideal. Any movie with similar qualities – any movie that featured a world or situations the viewers want to experience in real life but for whatever reason can’t, or don’t – could’ve sparked the same reactions.
What is to blame – or, at least what I think is to blame – is how very unhappy so many of us already are. Our lives, our jobs, our relationships and interactions with others, our world as a whole – so many of us are just unhappy with it all. Sometimes that unhappiness turns into depression and, if we’re wise about it, we seek help. Other times we think we’re managing that unhappiness fairly well only to find out later – when something comes along to show us how good things aren’t – that we weren’t really handling it all that well after all.
Most of us have heard the old adage “Happiness is a state of mind,” and I think that’s true to a point. After some mental rearranging, I’ve been able to be happy in some pretty miserable conditions.
Research published last summer suggests cultivating positive emotions daily can help increase our resilience and happiness, and author, teacher, and psychotherapist Sylvia Boorstein recently talked with Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D about mindfulness and cultivating happiness while blogger and author Gretchen Rubin has gone as far as creating eight tools for happiness she presents in her Happiness Project Toolbox.
However, beyond just teaching ourselves how to cultivate happiness and helping ourselves be happy in less-than-desirable situations, we also have the power to change our situations.
It’s not easy and doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s possible.
I wonder if any of the people experiencing depression after watching Avatar have given that some serious thought? Sure, suggesting they change the world isn’t exactly feasible, but suggesting they re-evaluate their own worlds – make plans and take steps to change what’s making them unhappy and to move toward what will make them happy – is, isn’t it?