The Difference Between Dreamers and Doers
The perils of excessive daydreaming and fantasy.
Posted May 7, 2018
Daydreaming (or mind wondering) is one of life’s great enjoyments. You can indulge in it when you’re stuck in a boring meeting, a traffic jam, or walk. They reflect what you want in life, and something to strive for. But they can also keep you stuck in your life. Dreamers get nowhere in life without becoming doers (Oettingen, 2014). Indulging in the desired future ignores possible obstacles and therefore masks the necessity to act.
For most of us, daydreaming can provide a source of creative inspiration. It is a mental capacity for freedom from an immediate event toward inner thoughts and feelings. Daydreaming is a virtual world where we can plan for and rehearse future scenarios without risk (Schooler, 2011).
In contrast, merely focusing on present reality does not give a direction of where to go. An intense focus on our problems (setbacks) may not always lead to immediate solutions. Daydreaming helps problem-solving and planning for the future.
However, daydreaming or fantasizing about desired future may make people feel accomplished temporally. After all, if you can imagine a world in which you’ve achieved your goals, why bother pursuing them in the real world? Picturing an imaginary experience of success diminishes the energy to translate fantasy into reality through action (Oettingen, 2018).
Why, then, are we so prone to fantasizing about the future, if doing so, in fact, reduces the chance of achieving our dreams?
Positive fantasies are seductive. Positive thoughts and images provide feelings of relaxation (relief from boredom) and a false sense of security. They provide immediate emotional benefits. Positive fantasies allow a person to enjoy future success already in the here and now with no effort for fulfilling them. Positive fantasies do not involve a commitment or motivational elements of working toward the imagined goals.
One can also become addicted to fantasy. Similar to drug addiction, extreme daydreamers get pleasure from daydreaming and find their private world so difficult to escape. The psychologist Eli Somerl (2002) coined the phrase maladaptive daydreaming. It is not officially recognized as a disorder. Maladaptive daydreaming is an addiction to fantasizing, and it can interfere with social activities, vital tasks, and everyday life. People suffering from it are troubled by their habit and their inability to control it.
Maladaptive daydreaming is a form of escapism. To escape their memories and emotional pain, dreamers retreat into a fantasy world, perhaps an ideal version of themselves living a perfect life. So daydreaming replaces the painful real-life interactions between family and friends.
The defining difference between maladaptive daydreaming and psychosis is the fact that the individual knows that their daydreams are not real. They are aware of daydreaming.
Fortunately, positive fantasies can become a powerful protective factor when added to a healthy dose of reality. By imagining the future and then imagining obstacles of reality, one recognizes that measures need to be taken to overcome the status quo to achieve the desired future. So successful goal pursuits require figuring out which wishes are desirable and feasible and which ones to let go.
Oettingen, G. (2014). Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. New York, NY: Penguin Random House.
Oettingen G, Sevincer T, and Gollwitzer P. (2018). The Psychology of Thinking about the Future. NY: Guilford Press.
Schooler, J. W., Smallwood, J., Christoff, K., Handy, T. C., Reichle, E. D., and Sayette, M. A. (2011). Meta-awareness, perceptual decoupling and the wandering mind. Trends Cogn. Sci. 15, 319–326.
Somer Eli (202), Maladaptive Daydreaming: A Qualitative Inquiry. Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy, Vol. 32, Nos. 2–3.