Far from being a waste of time, daydreaming could be one of the best things you can do in your spare time.
Many studies have attempted to quantify the time spent daydreaming. Some, including one of Harvard, estimate that we spend 30 to 50% of our waking life letting our minds wander. However, none of these works presents these mental wanderings in a positive sign. The point is, for decades psychologists have equated daydreaming with a failure of cognitive control, detailing how it slows down task processing or our memory abilities. But not everyone agrees.
Starting with Jerome Singer, former professor at Pennsylvania State University and father of daydreaming research. He said staying in the clouds could also be good. Otherwise, why would our minds be so inclined to wander there?
Unlike psychologists who described daydreaming as a waste of time, Dr. Singer was more nuanced. According to him, some wanderings are indeed counterproductive. Let us evoke those relating to painful and obsessive fantasies, those aiming to flee events or feelings of distress, and again those testifying to an undisciplined inability to concentrate. On the other hand, other constructive, playful and creative daydreams could be beneficial to us.
Some research today echoes these ideas proposed 70 years ago by Singer. What if we could rely on focused, playful daydreaming to improve our overall well-being?
Harder than it looks
New research indicates that daydreaming can inspire happiness … as long as you engage in it deliberately.
In a study published in the journal Emotion, the researchers sought to test the different levels of pleasure derived from thought. During this work, participants on their own were more likely to turn to worrying or neutral topics, ultimately exposing themselves to negative or neutral feelings after the session.
In contrast, when offered a setting to guide them to imagine something positive, like a fantasy of superpowers or the memory of their first kiss, these same participants were 50% more likely to feel good after the session.
Why couldn’t they orient themselves towards positive wandering of the mind on their own? Erin Westgate, professor of psychology at the University of Florida and lead author of the study, points out that positive reverie is a much heavier lift. “When you dream, you act as a screenwriter, director, audience and performer in a whole mental drama that unfolds in your head”, she explains. “It’s incredibly demanding on the cognitive level”.
Thus, our brains tend to go into effortless mental wanderings, even when the results are negative.
Control your daydreams
So learning how to properly control your imagination would be worth it. However, as Dr. Westgate’s study shows, willful daydreaming is particularly difficult without inspiration. Cognitive flexibility and creativity indeed peak in childhood and decline with age. This creativity is still there, but it might need to be encouraged.
As part of this study, the researchers presented participants with a list of topics that were both pleasant and meaningful. For their part, the volunteers said they preferred to reflect on these examples rather than to reflect on their own on a particular positive event.
In everyday life, we don’t necessarily have examples in front of us. So Dr. Westgate advises to make the effort, at the beginning, to imagine rewarding subjects. It could be a pleasant memory, a future accomplishment, or an event that you are looking forward to. With a little practice, even the briefest mental asides can restore a sense of well-being.