New Research Finds Daydreaming Is Good For Our Health

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Daydreaming has been under attack for generations. As children we were told to “get that head out of the clouds and pay attention.” In adulthood recent studies have told us that mind-wandering seemed to makes us unhappy because it usually leads to negative rumination.

Now a group of researchers are heroically defending daydreaming AND insisting we all need to learn how to do it more. Contrary to popular opinion, daydreaming is actually an important activity in the brain. Daydreaming, or ‘thinking for pleasure’ actually has important health benefits.

“This is part of our cognitive toolkit that’s underdeveloped, and it’s kind of sad,” says psychology professor and study author Erin Westgate in a press release.

In the study, published in Emotion, the authors write, “When given the freedom, people do not spontaneously choose to think for pleasure, and when directed to do so, struggle to concentrate successfully. Moreover, people find it somewhat boring and much less enjoyable than other solitary activities.” The study authors speculate that people simply don’t know what to think about in order to think for pleasure, or daydream.

It’s this inability of adults to know how to enjoy thinking that has led to recent advice from positive psychology researchers telling us to stay focused on the present and avoid letting our minds wander. That’s because some research has shown that mind-wandering often leads to rumination, and obsessing on the negative is definitely not good for us. But mind-wandering is not the same thing as rumination, and our brains actually spend about 50% of the time doing it. Recent research has found that our brains do it because it helps us find innovative solutions to problems. Maybe daydreaming has a good side to it too?

Daydreaming is an entirely different cognitive activity from either mind-wandering or rumination. According Westgate and her co-authors, daydreaming is ‘thinking for pleasure,’ and it’s harder than we think. Which could be why scientists have previously found that daydreaming at work can make us more innovative.

Westgate says that in order to daydream, “You have to be the actor, director, screenwriter and audience of a mental performance. Even though it looks like you’re doing nothing, it’s cognitively taxing.”  But it’s worth it, because daydreaming has positive health benefits, like increased wellbeing or improved pain tolerance.

Daydreaming is a skill

To determine if people could regain the skill of daydreaming they had as children, the researchers started by coaching them to think ‘meaningful thoughts.’ It was terrible. Not only did the study participants not have the rewarding experience the researchers intended, they thought their own unguided thoughts were more pleasant.

“I was so confused,” Westgate says. But that was before she checked with participants on what they had been thinking about. “It was heavy stuff. It didn’t seem to occur to them that they could use the time to enjoy their own thoughts.” 

On the other hand, prompting study participants to think for fun led them to think of treats like cake or avocado toast and not to the deep satisfaction of a daydream.

Then the researchers discovered the trick to daydreaming. Westgate gave study participants examples of topics to think about that were both pleasant and meaningful. With that prompt, the participants reported that they enjoyed themselves 50% more than they did when they were told to think about anything they liked.

Westgate was delighted. She believes daydreaming is “something that sets us apart. It defines our humanity. It allows us to imagine new realities.”

But that doesn’t make it easy. “This is hard for everybody. There’s no good evidence that some types of people are simply better thinkers. I’m the world’s worst person at this,” Westgate says. “But knowing why it can be hard and what makes it easier really makes a difference. The encouraging part is we can all get better.” 

Westgate believes daydreaming is something that requires practice. But she also argues the effort is worth it, because daydreaming can reshape our emotions and make us happier. And experienced daydreamers can draw on the skill when they are under stress.

How to have pleasant daydreams

Westgate knows it can be hard to train our minds for daydreaming. “We’re fairly clueless,” she says. “We don’t seem to know what to think about to have a positive experience.”

But Westgate also points out that, “This is something all of us can do once you have the concept. We give 4- and 5-year-olds these instructions, and it makes sense to them.”  Here are some tips to get started:

  1. Believe that daydreaming is a skill you can build with practice.
  2. Remind yourself that this is not a time to run your to-do list or plan a vacation.
  3. Try it out when you are doing something only mildly engaging, like folding laundry or taking a shower. When the brain is slightly occupied, we are more likely to daydream. “The next time you’re walking, instead of pulling out your phone, try it,” Westgate says. 
  4. Most importantly, tell yourself that daydreaming can feel wonderful if you prompt your thoughts with subjects you enjoy.

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