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The most common voluntary activity is not eating, drinking alcohol, or taking drugs. It is not socializing with friends, participating in sports, or relaxing with the family. While people sometimes describe sex as their most pleasurable act, time-management studies find that the average American adult devotes just four minutes per day to sex.
Our main leisure activity is, by a long shot, participating in experiences that we know are not real. When we are free to do whatever we want, we retreat to the imagination—to worlds created by others, as with books, movies, video games, and television (over four hours a day for the average American), or to worlds we ourselves create, as when daydreaming and fantasizing. …
This is a strange way for an animal to spend its days. Surely we would be better off pursuing more adaptive activities—eating and drinking and fornicating, establishing relationships, building shelter, and teaching our children. Instead, 2-year-olds pretend to be lions, graduate students stay up all night playing video games, young parents hide from their offspring to read novels, and many men spend more time viewing Internet pornography than interacting with real women. …
One solution to this puzzle is that the pleasures of the imagination exist because they hijack mental systems that have evolved for real-world pleasure. We enjoy imaginative experiences because at some level we don’t distinguish them from real ones. …
Just as artificial sweeteners can be sweeter than sugar, unreal events can be more moving than real ones. There are three reasons for this. First, fictional people tend to be wittier and more clever than friends and family, and their adventures are usually much more interesting. I have contact with the lives of people around me, but this is a small slice of humanity, and perhaps not the most interesting slice. My real world doesn’t include an emotionally wounded cop tracking down a serial killer, a hooker with a heart of gold, or a wisecracking vampire. As best I know, none of my friends has killed his father and married his mother. But I can meet all of those people in imaginary worlds.
Second, life just creeps along, with long spans where nothing much happens. The O.J. Simpson trial lasted months, and much of it was deadly dull. Stories solve this problem—as the critic Clive James once put it, “Fiction is life with the dull bits left out.” This is one reason why Friends is more interesting than your friends.
Finally, the technologies of the imagination provide stimulation of a sort that is impossible to get in the real world. A novel can span birth to death and can show you how the person behaves in situations that you could never otherwise observe. In reality you can never truly know what a person is thinking; in a story, the writer can tell you. (more)
Yes modern stories and art are more enticing than were those of our distant forager ancestors. But their stories and art also occupied much of their time, especially when food was plentiful. It seems rather implausible that this was only because “imagination … hijack[s] mental systems that have evolved for real-world pleasure.” Surely our foragers would have evolved a resistance to such imagination, if it in fact wasted valuable time. I’m pretty confident that since foragers had stories and art, then stories and art must have served, and still serve, important functions.
Modern humans often prefer to believe that the activities which they most treasure have no evolutionary function – that they were accidents. This attitude helps them stay blind to those functions, awareness of which would make their treasured activities seem less noble.