Can’t Stop Zillow Surfing? Here’s What All That Digital Escapism Can Tell You About Yourself and Your Life

Photo: Getty Images/Olga Rolenko
It was after the birth of my third child that I picked up late-night Zillow surfing. I’d enter a price point slightly above what I could afford, a location I loved (often far away from the demanding mom life I was living), and the scrolling commenced. I had no plan to move, no impetus, no job lined up at my fantasy location, but it served some purpose for me. What is it about Zillow digital escapism, saving real estate searches for homes you don’t intend to buy, hearting Airbnb homes with no travel plans, or even filling an online shopping cart with clothing items you can’t afford that feels so good?

The online world provides an escape from our everyday life and a means of exploring an alternate reality with no risks attached. But it's not without its costs. Sometimes seeking out our fantasy world brings up negative emotions, like envy or feeling like you’re not enough. So how come we continue to do it?

Why we may engage in Zillow surfing and other forms of digital escapism

Any form of escapism, the tendency or desire to seek distraction or relief from the realities of life, often through entertainment, fantasy, or imagination, is meant to help us get away or create more distance from our current life circumstances, stress, or anxiety. Many of us have learned that experiencing something distressing or discomforting is “bad;” therefore, we try to escape to feel good instead. The issue isn’t that we seek escape—it’s that we believe that the mode of escapism we engage with will solve our problems. Below are a few reasons why we gravitate toward digital escapism.

1. We can explore without risks or losses

When we're online, we can let our minds wander to new places and experiences without making the tough choices associated with living out our fantasies.

For example, feeling the excitement and passion while scrolling through bungalows in Los Angeles (when I am in the middle of a dreary New York winter) allows me to have a sense of possibility without having to experience any of the losses that would inevitably come with moving away from my home and my community. Filling my shopping cart with beautiful clothes allows me to imagine my body adorned with color, without buying anything, which would negatively impact my bank account.

2. We are dissatisfied and seeking a change in our life

As humans, we typically take leaps not when things are going well, but when there’s something that we are running from (a job we don’t like for example) or running toward (like a new partner). Maybe your digital escapism is the first step in your plan for change: Being attracted to what we don’t have, can give us good information about what we currently lack. It could be the evidence or conscious awareness that something needs to shift in your life. If you’re experiencing jealousy or envy, these negative emotions may give you clues about what you desire.

3. We give into what we crave when our true desires don’t feel accessible

It is very normal to live a life driven by cravings. American culture even has rituals centered around them: Meeting for drinks is a popular pastime, shopping malls are a cornerstone of many communities, and porn is a multi-billion dollar industry. We feel propelled by acquiring (new shoes perhaps?), possessing (having a partner to ourselves?), and imbibing (drinking alcohol most days of the week). There is absolutely nothing wrong or bad about any of this; the issue is that we believe following the craving will make us feel better long-term. (Spoiler alert: it won’t.)

When we start feeling negative emotions about ourselves or our life (guilt, shame, sadness, boredom, anger), we want to be soothed and reach for release or a “dopamine” hit. Craving is defined as the narrowing of focus and motivation to only one thing. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter (aka chemical messenger in the brain) decreases the noise in our brains. The more we give in to these cravings, the more our bodies adjust to the possibility of relief and the quieter the noise of the negative emotions becomes, at least in the short term.

4. The scrolling is a placeholder for what feels out of reach

In the early days of being a new mom, I was so tired and overwhelmed by my children’s needs that Zillow surfing and imagining myself in an environment that appeared to be serene and spacious was soothing. Because our soul desires are so messy and often way bigger and harder to achieve than what is just a “click away,” we manage the associated anxiety by trying to simplify these desires into craving satiation—for love, sex, food, alcohol, and spending.

For example, maybe you’re craving more genuine connection in your life, but because this journey has been hard for you, you settle for what’s in your reach: a digital, accessible, watered-down version of what you truly want so you go on a dating app and let the buzz of being "like" boost your dopamine levels and validate you for a little while.

Again, there is nothing wrong with engaging in digital escapism occasionally. Still, it's important to know that it's a detour—not a direct path to addressing whatever issues are making you want to escape your life in the first place. If you're looking for a roadmap for the latter, keep reading.

What to do instead of engaging in digital escapism

One of the difficult nuances of fantasies is determining whether you should try and make them a reality. How can you tell whether what you need requires an actual life change versus a change in perspective about your current circumstances?

Escapism tells us: “If my circumstances were different, I would feel/be/act differently.” If I had nicer clothes, I would feel more confident. I would feel more peaceful if I lived in a more peaceful place. While this may be true, there are times when we try to change external circumstances to address internal problems or disconnections. We think that if we can rearrange the world around us, it will quiet the chaos within us.

We engage in escapism to get away from something we don’t like, but the only way to get away from those things is to do the opposite: to face them, get to know their message, and plan to live a life based on what you find in this reality, not outside of your reality.

For example, my Zillow surfing was distracting me from the feeling of anxiety. And yet, I needed to listen to that anxiety to get its message, which was that I needed more quiet time alone and to lean on my community for more childcare. If I continued to escape these feelings, I would not have learned what I needed from them.

We have to be in our reality to change it. One question to sit with as you scroll through a fantasy life is: Am I doing this because I am hoping to feel differently? And if so, how do I feel now, and how can I tend to that feeling? Is it really a new wardrobe? Or is it to build skills in self-acceptance? Is it really a different body, or is it to scrutinize a culture that made you dislike yours? Is it really a vacation, or is it to start taking inventory of how you can build a life that you don’t need to run away from?

One of my guiding stars in this journey of going toward the tough stuff to liberate myself from it is from the French poet Paul Eluard: “There is another world, but it’s inside this one.” 

This may be work you can do on your own, but it also may be beneficial to work with a therapist or mental health professional who can help you identify the underlying causes of your desire to dip out of your life and help you figure out how to lean in instead of out.

The Wellness Intel You Need—Without the BS You Don't
Sign up today to have the latest (and greatest) well-being news and expert-approved tips delivered straight to your inbox.

Loading More Posts...