5 Reasons You Should Never Stop Daydreaming
Research tells us that fantasy offers essential psychological benefits.
Posted January 29, 2021 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
If you have a job—or even if you don’t—you probably spend a good deal of your workday lost in thought. This is no shame, of course: for most modern Americans, daydreaming is a very common way to pass the time.
In 2010, researchers surveyed more than 2,000 adults with random text messages, asking what they were thinking about. The study's participants reported daydreaming almost 47 percent of the time. And don’t be embarrassed about the contents of your own fantasies, either: according to psychoanalyst Dr. Ethel Person, most daydreams serve the purposes of either reassuring oneself or, as you have probably suspected, achieving sexual arousal.
But letting your mind drift away from what you’re supposed to be doing can also help you solve problems. After all, if you aren’t able to use your imagination, you’ll be limited to problem-solving methods and ideas that already exist, and you won’t be able to generate anything new. This, as reported in a 2013 article in National Geographic, may be due to a neurological privilege of fantasy: that of gaining access to alternate pathways in our brains, which may allow us to integrate information not previously available to consciousness.
And of course, nearly everyone has had the fantasy of achieving a long-held personal goal. By focusing on such fantasies, we may be able to feel more motivated to work toward these achievements. In fact, in a 2011 study by David B. Feldman and Diane E. Dreher, participants who underwent a single session of concentrated, goal-oriented daydreaming later reported significantly more progress toward their goals than the subjects in control conditions. And this is all on top of the most obvious benefits of daytime fantasy: that of helping to reduce stress and fatigue by allowing you to take brief, satisfying “vacations” from your work.
There are also several less well-known benefits of daydreaming, such as the way it helps to foster human relationships. As indicated in a 2010 article in Wired, fantasy improves empathy. After all, it’s impossible to empathize with another human being if you lack the capacity to imagine what they might be feeling. Frequent daydreaming might therefore offer some psychological practice in developing and strengthening a theory of mind, which is to say, the capacity to understand that another person’s mental state can be different from one’s own.
Many real-world relationships are deeply informed by fantasy in another way, as well. As Dr. Ethel Person suggested in a 1996 interview with the New York Times, people may forge significant relationships—either romantic or otherwise—with people who fit into the fantasy roles in which they cast themselves. For example, a person who, in fantasy, is seen as a rescuer will often connect quite well with someone who fantasizes about needing to be rescued. Dr. Person also wrote that the process of falling in love means fitting the loved one into your fantasy life, and thereby, at least to some degree, blending fantasy with reality.
And even relationships that exist completely in the realm of fantasy can be good for you. Perhaps you really enjoy your favorite TV show because its characters seem like real people, who could become your friends. Or maybe listening to a particular podcast feels like hanging out with someone who really understands your sense of humor. Because these characters aren’t actually alive, and the actors or podcasters involved don’t really know us, the connections we forge with these people are known as parasocial relationships.
Despite what you might be thinking, relationships like these do not necessarily correlate with loneliness, as studies like this one have shown. Rather, there’s experimental evidence that parasocial connections offer companionship and provide feelings of affection, gratitude, and encouragement. (It is possible to go too far in developing a fantasy relationship to a public figure, of course, but in most cases it is not harmful to feel close to your favorite characters in fiction, or your favorite public figures in media.)
Contemporary, mainstream American culture is quite thoroughly dedicated to rational thought—sometimes to a fault. This can lead us to feel marginalized or criticized for spending time entertaining elaborate fantasies about ourselves, or imagining a better future. But when fantasy so deeply permeates our relationships, helps us relax, motivates us to accomplish more, and even helps soothe us when we’re stressed, it shouldn’t be ignored as a component of positive, healthy living.
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