How to Make Daydreaming More Enjoyable

Daydreaming for fun is harder than it seems. A new study offers a solution.

Posted Mar 05, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye

Barnawi M Thahir/Shutterstock
Source: Barnawi M Thahir/Shutterstock
  • Daydreaming, or thinking for pleasure, can be an antidote to boredom and is a powerful tool for shaping our emotions.
  • Previous cross-cultural research found that, in general, people derive more enjoyment from doing everyday solitary activities than trying to think pleasurable thoughts.
  • A new study asks: "What makes thinking for pleasure pleasurable?" When participants were prompted to think "pleasurable and meaningful" thoughts, they enjoyed daydreaming more.
  • When prompted to think only "meaningful" thoughts, it was difficult for most study participants to enjoy daydreaming.

Although daydreaming has a reputation for being a pleasurable way to escape the gloomy, harsh, or monotonous realities of day-to-day life, "thinking for pleasure" is less easy to achieve and less enjoyable than many of us might assume, according to a growing body of research. 

Two years ago, in a Psychology Today blog post, "The Lost Art of Thinking for Pleasure," Mark Travers reported on a study (Buttrick et al., 2019) led by Nicholas Buttrick that examined the cross-cultural consistency of people's self-reported enjoyment levels while doing external activities vs. "just thinking."

The researchers asked: "Which is more enjoyable: trying to think enjoyable thoughts or doing everyday solitary activities?" "In America, the answer is clear. People would do just about anything to avoid being left with their own thoughts," Travers wrote in his PT post.

Buttrick et al. found that of the 2,557 study participants from 12 sites in 11 countries (Belgium, Brazil, Costa Rica, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Portugal, Serbia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, United States), most people, across cultures, enjoyed engaging in solitary activities more than thinking freely and "entertaining themselves with their thoughts as best they could."

"Participants randomly assigned to do something [e.g., reading, watching TV, surfing the internet] reported significantly greater enjoyment than did participants randomly assigned to think for pleasure," Buttrick and coauthors conclude. "The results were consistent in every country: Participants randomly assigned to do something reported significantly greater enjoyment than did participants randomly assigned to think for pleasure."

Why Thinking "Meaningful and Positive" Thoughts Is Key

Recently, a follow-up study led by Erin Westgate, a University of Florida psychology professor, along with Nick Buttrick (currently a postdoc at Princeton University), Timothy Wilson and Rémy Furrer of the University of Virginia, and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University's Department of Psychology, investigated why so many people "do not spontaneously choose to think for pleasure, and when directed to do so, struggle to concentrate successfully." The findings of this preregistered study (Westgate et al., 2021) were published on March 4 in the peer-reviewed journal Emotion.

For this two-pronged investigation into why people often find daydreaming or thinking for pleasure less enjoyable than other solitary activities, the researchers started by providing study participants with specific examples of meaningful topics (Study 1) and then instructed them "to think 'meaningful' thoughts" (Study 2).

Prior to conducting this research, Westgate hypothesized that giving participants a list of meaningful topics and then instructing them to think meaningful thoughts would guide their thinking in ways that would make daydreaming a rewarding experience.

Surprisingly, they discovered that asking people to think meaningful thoughts actually made daydreaming much less enjoyable than freely thinking about unguided thoughts. "I was so confused," Westgate said in a news release. But after analyzing which meaningful topics study participants reported thinking about when asked to think about something meaningful, she realized that "it was heavy stuff."

According to the news release, Westgate "wants to help people recapture that daydream state, which may boost wellness and even pain tolerance." As she explains, "What we feel is a function of what we think. Thinking for pleasure can be a powerful tool to shape our emotions."

That said, optimizing daydream states can be tricky because when people are nudged to think about "fun" things instead of "meaningful" topics, they usually default to thinking about superficial or hedonistic pleasures (e.g., eating ice cream). Westgate notes that these superficial thoughts "don't scratch the same itch as thoughts that are pleasant but also meaningful."

Therefore, she recommends priming the brain to think about topics that are simultaneously enjoyable [e.g., happy, fun, positive] and meaningful. "In order for thinking for pleasure to be pleasurable, people need to focus on topics that are both meaningful and positive," Westgate et al. sum up in their paper's abstract.

In addition to the boredom-fighting power of daydreaming, thinking for pleasure can also be intrinsically rewarding. "It's something that sets us apart. It defines our humanity. [Thinking for pleasure] allows us to imagine new realities," Westgate concludes. "But that kind of thinking requires practice. As you build your ability to daydream, you'll have a source of enjoyable thoughts at your disposal during stressful times. The next time you're walking, instead of pulling out your phone, try it."

References

Erin C. Westgate, Timothy D. Wilson, Nicholas R. Buttrick, Rémy A. Furrer & Daniel T. Gilbert. "What Makes Thinking for Pleasure Pleasurable?" Emotion (First published: March 04, 2021) DOI: 10.1037/emo0000941

Nicholas Buttrick, Hyewon Choi, Timothy D. Wilson, et al. "Cross-Cultural Consistency and Relativity in the Enjoyment of Thinking Versus Doing." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (First published: November 23, 2019) DOI: 10.1037/pspp0000198