Distracted? Why Daydreaming Is Good for You

Daydreaming is the time-honored pastime of distracted algebra students everywhere. But as adults living and working in a culture that prizes productivity, drifting off into a daydream can seem treasonous.

No one wants to be accused of being lazy or unproductive. So we've convinced ourselves that if we take every spare moment that arises to busy ourselves sending a text, ordering groceries, or paying bills, we are better, more responsible members of society.

However, studies show that as much as half of our thoughts are daydreams, and experts posit that these free-floating reveries can help with memory, cognition, and creativity. The daydreamers among us feel they simply serve the more whimsical function of sheer delight. Luckily, researchers deem value in that, too.

Just ask Dr. Richard Davidson, founder of the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin at Madison: “If you can choose to daydream, and fully be present with it, it can be wonderful, creative, and active,” he says.

Mindful daydreaming

Daydreaming, or what the experts call mind wandering, happens when our thoughts are disconnected from the present task or environment. When we’re in Savasana planning out our weekend, that’s a form of daydreaming. And in our practice of yoga and mindfulness, we tend to characterize drifting thoughts as less desirable than those attuned to the present moment.

Mindfulness, it could be argued, is an anti-daydreaming practice. In his book Peace Is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh famously writes about dish-washing as a form of meditation, “being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands.”

But often when we are engaged in a rote activity that doesn’t require intense or focused attention, elbow-deep in suds, our minds may drift out of the sink. We dream about what we will plant in the garden next year, getting the job we really want, or where to head for a hike and picnic when the trees get their first fall color.

“Let your mind wander on a leash; it will lead you to the jewels of self-awareness and illuminate missing information hidden in your brain.”

This form of daydreaming is what pioneering daydream researcher Jerome L. Singer called "positive constructive daydreaming". And while some research posits the distracted mind is an unhappy mind, a period of self-reflection and future planning can actually mitigate an unhappy mood.

Especially in times of stress, daydreaming “gives us something positive to look forward to right now, helping us to consider new options and reevaluate priorities,” says Dr. Darby Fox, a therapist in New Canaan, Connecticut.

Choosing to engage in this positive constructive daydreaming with intention offers us positive results in return, write Rebecca L. McMillan and Scott Barry Kauffman, in their paper, “Ode to Positive Constructive Daydreaming,” published in Frontiers in Psychology:

“The pay off may be immediate, coming in the form of pleasing reverie, insight, or new synthesis of material, or it may be more distant as in rehearsing upcoming scenarios or projecting oneself forward in time to a desired outcome.”

Studies also show just how effective daydreaming about a goal can be. When students were asked to spend an hour daydreaming about a goal they wanted to achieve, they reported coming closer to or achieving the goal a month later when compared to students who had not practiced positive constructive daydreaming.

What our daydreams are trying to tell us

When our thoughts arise spontaneously, without any external stimulus, they can offer insightful messages about our futures. Think of daydreams as visual intuition—valuable imagery that is pure and personal to you. Do your daydreams regularly feature dense, lush woods? A writing desk? A baby in your arms?

"If you allow yourself to constructively daydream, you are likely to realize things about the future that you would miss otherwise," says Dr. Srini Pillay, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Let your mind wander on a leash; it will lead you to the jewels of self-awareness and illuminate missing information hidden in your brain.”

Daydreaming can help us problem solve and arrive at creative solutions and discoveries. What was Sir Isaac Newton doing under that apple tree anyway? Writers struggling with a story often let their minds wrestle with story while they walk.

“Perhaps / the truth depends on a walk around a lake,” wrote Wallace Stevens.

Try it

The next time you have a problem that’s been bothering you at home or work, take 20 minutes to daydream. See what your thoughts have to tell you. Allow them to bubble to the surface while lying down with your eyes closed, staring out the window, out on a walk, or, yes, even washing the dishes.


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