3 Ways For Adults To Make Imaginary Friends

Imaginary companions aren’t just for kids, and can be beneficial in the fight against loneliness.

Mark Travers, Ph.D.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | March 28, 2024

Loneliness is a serious mental health challenge that can even exacerbate one's risk of premature mortality, a 2023 study found. The latest Healthy Minds Monthly Poll from the American Psychiatric Association found that, in 2024, one in 10 Americans feel lonely everyday, with younger people being more likely to struggle with social isolation.

Interestingly, just as many of us grow up with imaginary friends, people find diverse ways to cope with loneliness—and some believe they can mentally create their own companionship, even if it is lacking in the real world.

Here are three ways people use imaginary companions to fight loneliness, according to research.

1. Reality Shifting

A 2021 study examined the recent trend of "reality shifting" among teenagers and young adults, which refers to the practice of mentally transporting oneself to an alternate reality or a desired fictional universe.

Reality shifting is based on the belief that individuals can shift their consciousness to experience alternate realities as if they were real. These realities are often based on fictional worlds or scenarios from popular books, video games or movies such as the Harry Potter or Star Wars series.

While it has not been scientifically validated, followers of this concept believe that, through techniques such as visualization, meditation and scripting, they can experience vivid, immersive experiences in these alternate realities.

The interest in reality shifting appears to have risen following the Covid-19 pandemic, during which many individuals experienced a spike in loneliness and mental distress. Researchers suggest that many users try immersing themselves in fictional worlds to escape or cope with negative aspects of their real lives.

Reality shifting gained popularity through online communities, and engaging in it can be a social activity, providing a sense of belonging and camaraderie among like-minded individuals who share the interest.

Reality shifters can also form an imagined community in a whole new reality where they decide what happens and have control over social interactions, even scripting them, unlike the social uncertainty they experience in the real world.

However, individuals who heavily invest in reality shifting may become disengaged from their real-world responsibilities and relationships, neglecting important aspects of life, such as work, school or social interactions.

"An investment in such practice at the expense of developing coping tasks to deal with real-life challenges such as social anxiety and loneliness may be deleterious," the researchers explain.

Intense immersion in alternate realities or a failure to achieve desired outcomes through reality shifting may also lead to feelings of disappointment, frustration or disillusionment. This could potentially exacerbate existing mental health issues or trigger emotional distress in vulnerable individuals, highlighting the importance of establishing healthy mental boundaries if one decidesto attempt reality shifting.

2. Fictophilia

Researchers of a 2021 study describe in detail the phenomenon of "fictophilia," which refers to a strong attraction or attachment to fictional characters, often found in literature, film, television or other media. "Fictophiles" may feel intense emotional connections to these characters, sometimes even preferring them to real-life relationships.

While fictophiles may not always mentally immerse themselves in their beloved character's fictional world like reality shifters do, they may fantasize about this character reciprocating their love and rely on them for social support.

Fictophiles often engage with these characters by daydreaming about having a relationship with them, cosplaying, buying themed merchandise, writing fan fiction or creating other types of fan art about them.

Researchers explain that fictophiles find these one-sided relationships safe and predictable, as they know they cannot be hurt or betrayed by them. They also find these characters emotionally superior and often more attractive than human companions.

Remarkably, research shows that such imagined parasocial connections are perceived to be as beneficial as real-life relationships. However, fictophiles may experience sadness and frustration knowing their feelings cannot ever be truly returned.

3. Tulpamancy

Another internet subculture seeking imagined companionship includes those engaging in "tulpamancy," which refers to a practice in which individuals create sentient, responsive beings known as "tulpas" within their minds. While they "share bodies" with the creator, tulpas are often described as independent entities with their own thoughts, feelings and personalities.

The concept of tulpamancy has its roots in Tibetan Buddhism, where a tulpa is traditionally considered a manifestation of spiritual practice. Young adults practicing it today typically seek out companionship by engaging in meditation, visualization and focused attention exercises to develop and interact with their tulpas.

Individuals who create tulpas often interact with them as they would with another person, engaging in conversations, sharing experiences and seeking emotional support. This ongoing internal dialogue offers a sense of connection when external social interactions are limited.

Research shows that many individuals practicing tulpamancy are young, highly capable of becoming mentally absorbed in imaginative experiences and have limited social interactions.

Tulpas often "accompany" tulpamancers in their real world lives, providing them an opportunity to experience meaningful relationships. Researchers also suggest that using tulpamancy to fight loneliness is not inherently pathological.

In fact, research shows that this practice can co-exist with optimal functioning and lead to improvements in mental health and well-being, especially among individuals diagnosed with mental or neurodevelopmental disorders.

While reality shifting, fictophilia and tulpamancy offer avenues for combating loneliness and provide individuals with a sense of comfort, connection and belonging, it's crucial to maintain a grounded perspective. Recognize the importance of forming genuine connections with others in the real world and approach imagined connections mindfully, with an understanding of their limitations and potential impacts on mental well-being.

Do you feel a heightened sense of connection with famous people you've never met? Take the Celebrity Attitude Scale to learn more.

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