Are daydreams supposed to come true? What happens when they do—or don't?
Posted Sep 27, 2020
“I just want to spend time with people,” said Isobel.* “I miss my friends, I miss getting together in large groups, I miss the movies.”
“I love to travel,” said Deena.* “Thinking about where I’m going next has always been one of my favorite ways to spend my time. But right now, those daydreams are dead in the water. It hurts too much to even imagine going somewhere.”
"I’m terrified that I’m going to lose my job,” Rob* said. “I won’t be able to pay the rent or buy food for my family. Every day I think about where we could move that I’d be able to make a decent living and not be worried all the time.”
How do our dreams of who we are going to be and our actual experiences fit together? What happens when what we thought we wanted to be or do doesn’t turn out to be who we actually are or what we really want to do? And how is all of this panning out during COVID-19?
In his book The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud wrote about a dream that his daughter had about strawberries. He interpreted her dream as the fulfillment of a wish for a delectable treat that the grownups would not let her have in real life, because of an upset stomach. We often think of our daydreams in the same way—as imaginings of something we want, but that might never come true.
Daydreams are not facts. They are not even necessarily truths about who we are or what we really hope for our future. But they do serve some important purposes in our lives.
Daydreams, like night dreams, have several layers. The topmost layer is the one that we often know best. That’s the one that comes out when children talk about what they want to do when they grow up—or when they talk about wanting to go back to school in person and spend time with their friends in reality, rather than over the internet, which is what they may be limited to doing during COVID. It’s this top layer where we express fantasies of our life after the pandemic is over, or where we imagine being able to find job security in this time of insecurity. These daydreams are about events that we hope might be possible. They’re connected to reality, and they capture what psychoanalysts call the manifest content of a thought—the content that’s most visible to our conscious minds.
But there are other levels of thought in these awake dreams. These are what psychoanalysts call latent or underlying meanings. One of these layers of meaning contains images of how we would like our lives to unfold. Another layer involves who we would like to be—both in the here and now and in the future. And while these images are often framed in very specific pictures in the manifest content, they also often have other significant meanings.
As we work towards our developing future selves, there are two important things to keep in mind:
- We have more than one potential and satisfied self.
- Understanding the underlying meanings rather than trying to achieve the actual mental pictures of our future can be a far more productive path to future happiness.
My PT colleague Marilyn Price-Mitchell writes that daydreaming is an important process that connects us to the creative parts of our mind. She writes that of course, it can sometimes “interfere with academic, physical, and interpersonal functioning. When daydreaming inhibits healthy development, affects sleep habits, or increases negative behaviors, parents should seek professional advice.” But, she tells us, “For the majority of children (and adults), daydreaming is not only a good thing—it’s essential to our flourishing as human beings.”
Technology can sometimes become tangled up with daydreaming. As Deena* told me, “it’s so easy to go online and search for the perfect vacation—but then I get more depressed, because I can’t travel anywhere interesting right now.”
But even though daydreams aren’t facts, and even though they're often about the future, they can help you find a way to something that will be more satisfying in the present moment. They can also help you feel hopeful as you imagine a time in the future when all of the turmoil of today will be in the past and you can feel safe and enjoy life again.
Deena,* for instance, said that she would love to travel to a Caribbean island and spend a week enjoying the culture and the sun. “I know I'll do that again sometime," she said. "But since I can’t do it right now, rather than sitting around feeling sorry for myself, I think I’ll see if I can find some beautiful body of water that I’ve never visited somewhere closer to home—and maybe I can talk my boyfriend into taking a picnic lunch and sitting and reading for a few hours.”
And Rob,* who was worried about his work, said, “I think this is the time for me to re-think what I’ve been doing. I’ve never considered myself a person who could have a real career. I was not a good student, so I just started working right out of high school.” He had gotten his first job in a restaurant, as a dishwasher, and had moved up in the kitchen to the point where he helped out with food preparation. But during the pandemic, his work had been unpredictable. “Right now the takeout business is booming, but who knows what’s going to happen in the winter, if things get bad with COVID or with the election. The world isn’t looking so good.”
Still, Rob had a dream. “One day, when things settle down, I’d like to open my own restaurant. I have to find a way to save some money to do that, obviously, and I can barely scrape together enough to feed and house my family right now.” But that dream became a motivator for him. He asked his boss if he could start to train to have more responsibility in the kitchen. “I told him that I’d work overtime for no pay to get the training.” His boss took him up on the proposal. “I think he was happy to have the extra hand available, but I also think it makes me a more valuable employee. And that makes me feel a little more secure in my job—and in my future.”
Of course, some of our pandemic daydreams are bad ones—our fears about what the future holds, about how the world is going to change, and about dangers to our own health and that of our loved ones are all, at the moment, painful and disturbing daydreams or imaginings. We don’t know yet what is going to be.
The thing is, you can deal with these negative thoughts about the future in much the same way that you deal with your positive fantasies: think of them as communications from yourself to yourself. Can these thoughts give you some ideas about how to prepare for painful possibilities? And then can you remind yourself that they are not facts, but imaginings? Once you’ve thought about ways to manage some of the things you’re imagining, can you also allow yourself to imagine other possibilities?
In the end, daydreams can be tools for creative thinking and creative problem-solving. They can help you take action to improve the here and now, as well as to move forward into the future you want to live in.
*identifying information changed to protect privacy