“Get your head out of the clouds!”
They're words nearly all of us heard from our grade-school teachers when our minds wandered to something more interesting than whatever we were supposed to be focusing on.
According to research, however, it’s not just children whose minds wander. Harvard researchers enrolled over 2200 adults between the ages of 18 and 88 in a study in which they were sent regular text messages asking them what they were doing and thinking. Participants reported that their minds wondered an astonishing 46.9 percent of the time, often onto positive things, like getting a promotion, piloting an aircraft, inventing a new kind of space travel, or founding a small island society. In short, people love to daydream.
At first blush, all this daydreaming might sound counterproductive and even unhealthy. But, new research is beginning to show that it might not be. According to research published in the Creativity Research Journal, daydreaming and pretend play are associated with greater creativity in children. For many kids, fantasies form a basis for social activity with their friends, a way to explore their interests, and a vehicle for engaging in creative pursuits like drawing or storytelling.
Novel solutions to problems can even crop up in daydreams. In a 2013 article in National Geographic, University of Florida Psychiatrist Eugenio Rothe told author Christine Dell’Amore that, as our minds wander, different part of our brains activate, accessing information that may have previously been dormant or out of reach. According to Rothe, "This accounts for creativity, insights of wisdom and oftentime the solutions to problems that the person had not considered."
My colleague Diane Dreher and I published a study that even showed that certain kinds of daydreaming can make people more productive. We asked nearly 100 college students to name one of the most important goals in their lives. Participants named everything from making new friends or finding a significant other, to acing a class or earning enough money to pay for the next semester's tuition. We then asked a portion of the students to undergo an hour-long intervention consisting in part of daydreaming about their chosen goal, while other students partook in either a stress-management intervention or no intervention at all. A month later, students were sent an online survey asking them to rate the degree of progress they had made towards the goals they set during the initial session. The results indicated that those who participated in only one session of daydreaming reported significantly greater progress than participants in either of the comparison conditions.
So maybe our grade school teachers were wrong.
But they might not have been totally wrong. According to research, when not undergoing a formal daydreaming intervention, those whose minds naturally wander tend to report feeling less happy after a mind-wandering episode than when they manage to keep focused on whatever activity they're supposed to be doing. In other words, daydreaming can sometimes be distracting and even frustrating.
So, what determines when daydreams are good for us versus when they’re simply distracting?
Although researchers still aren’t completely sure, one key may be the degree of realism present in the daydream. Fantasy-based daydreams can lead to disappointment, emphasizing how we wish our lives would be, but aren’t. Realistic daydreams, on the other hand, show us what might actually be possible for our lives. They give us mental practice pursuing important goals before we have to invest any real time or effort.
In our intervention study, for instance, we asked participants to engage a very different kind of daydreaming than the one most children indulge in. Known as “structured daydreaming,” instead of indulging in flights of fancy about becoming President of the United States, a powerful sorcerer, or a rich impresario, we asked participants to be much more realistic in the images they conjured. They were instructed to close their eyes and use all five senses to vividly imagine themselves pursuing a real-life goal, complete with experiencing the frustration of dealing with obstacles that might stand in the way. Whereas fantasy-based daydreaming gives people the pleasant experience of enjoying a mental reward without any effort, structured daydreaming forces people to rehearse exactly what they'll need to do to accomplish their goals in real life. Similar mental rehearsal techniques have been used in the field of sports psychology, helping athletes improve complex skills like shooting hoops or hitting fly balls.
There’s nothing complicated about structured daydreaming. To have your own, simply choose a real-life goal you’re hoping to accomplish during the next several months. Then, over about 20 minutes, close your eyes and envision yourself pursuing that goal as realistically as you can. Don’t skip to the payoff like you normally would in a fantasy-based dream. Instead, vividly see yourself working on and succeeding at each step you’ll need to take. If your goal is to cook more often, for example, you could begin by imagining the first step along your journey: Going shopping for ingredients. See yourself walking up and down the aisles of your local grocery store, smelling the scents of the various foods, and choosing which ones to purchase. Do the same thing for each step leading to your goal. If you think you might encounter obstacles along the way, don’t ignore them. On the contrary, see yourself fully facing these obstacles and circumnavigating them using alternative plans.
Like so many pleasurable things—red wine and ice cream included—daydreaming by itself isn’t unhealthy. It matters how and when we do it. Though having our heads in the clouds all day long probably isn’t a good idea, when done in appropriate ways and at appropriate times, daydreaming can actually help us be more successful in life.
Besides, if we’re going to do it 46.9 percent of time anyhow, we might as well make it work for us.
David B. Feldman is a Professor of Counseling Psychology at Santa Clara University. Listen to his podcast, “Psychology in 10 Minutes,” on any podcast app, through SoundCloud, iTunes, or by subscribing to the show’s RSS feed.