I don’t sleep — I daydream. Well, not literally. After all, sleep is without question a necessity.
But, I tend to daydream a lot, especially when I’m alone — and, it turns out I’m not alone in doing so. It’s been estimated that “nearly 30–50% of waking conscious experience is occupied by thoughts unrelated to a primary task.”
For me, I let myself wander during my lunch break, washing the dishes or taking a shower. And, I really lean into daydreaming when overwhelmed. Sometimes for added fun, I talk to myself too! For example, I was so stressed about everything on my to-do list the other day that it put me in a very foul mood.
What did I do? As the anxiety mounted, I knew I had to save myself — no one else is going to save me. So I went for a long walk and left my phone behind. During my walk, I thought about the order I was going to tackle everything — then I put work out of my mind. Instead, I thought about an upcoming concert and a trip I want to take next year with friends.
When I got back, my head was not only clear — but I was ready to get back to work. And, there’s plenty of research that proves why daydreaming in this way can be beneficial.
The Benefits of Daydreaming
1. Sparks creativity and breakthrough problems.
“Anecdotally, mind-wandering has been associated with creativity for centuries,” writes Jill Suttie, Psy.D., in Greater Good Magazine. “But this link to creativity may depend on the type of mind-wandering you do, as a new study by the University of Calgary’s Julia Kam and her colleagues suggests.”
The reason? When we allow our minds to wander, we induce freely moving thoughts. In other words, we skip from one thought to another. As a result, this increases alpha waves in the brain’s frontal cortex.
“What’s really striking about finding this neural marker is that it’s been implicated during studies of creativity,” says Kam. “When you introduce alpha oscillation in the frontal cortex, people perform better on creative tasks.”
“This kind of brain activity maps well on to one particular aspect of creativity — divergent thinking or thinking “outside the box,” she says. The ability to freely move your thoughts is crucial when generating ideas. When you think freely, you can go in many different directions.
Moreover, mind-wandering enhances convergent thinking.
“If a problem has built up in your mind and you need to find a solution, letting it go into the background for a bit probably helps,” she says. “Mind-wandering facilitates the kind of solution that just comes to you, as in a lightbulb moment.”
2. Curbs stress and anxiety.
Your thoughts flow more freely when you shut out the “outside” world. By doing so, you’ll be able to relax and explore your mind. If you recall, as our thoughts flow in this way, we’re experiencing an alpha wave state. And, when in this zone, we’re calm and removed from perceived stress.
According to Harvard University’s Medical School health blog, “Mind-wandering can help manage anxiety.” Daydreaming serves as a natural means of reducing stress and anxiety, like meditation or other restful activities.
3. Boosts our mood.
While some research has found that mind-wandering is connected to unhappiness, it ultimately depends on the content. For example, reliving a past mistake can certainly dampen your mood. About ten years ago — I had to learn to say “stop” to the past mistake scenarios playing in my head. I not only say, “stop,” I say to myself, “no, no, no and hell no!” Then, I begin my planning-thinking and pleasant-thinking — and it helps.
Covid about did me in thinking-wise. I had to commit, once again, to keep track of my thought patterns and stay aware of how I was feeling. It’s SO much more productive to daydream and think about an upcoming vacation or think about your loved ones — always a more positive outcome.
And a 2021 study suggests that mind-wandering can actually improve your mood.
“After analyzing the data, the researchers found that when people’s thoughts were off-task, they generally felt more negative—similar to what earlier findings showed,” writes Suttie. “But if their thoughts were free-moving, it had the opposite effect, helping people feel happier.”
4. Increases productivity.
The key to becoming more productive? Take frequent breaks.
Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology have found that people who took breaks, even if it’s a micro-break, felt more refreshed and rejuvenated. They also were able to resume their work with newfound energy.
If you’re overworked or feeling tired at work, take some time to relax. Even just staring out the window for five minutes might do the trick. Sometimes I move onto the sofa at work and stare at the ceiling. It’s not too nuts — even our techies now do this.
5. Enhances employee well-being and creates long-term job satisfaction.
Again, daydreaming on the job has been shown to boost mood. And, this is true whether you’re working at home or in an office.
According to a study by 2020, when you release your mind, such as after a stressful meeting or intense work session, you feel more energized. In addition, the researchers concluded that daydreaming can boost employee satisfaction and well-being.
6. Helps reach your goals.
What do meandering thoughts have to do with reaching your goals? Despite their unguided nature, these thoughts are often driven by our goals, according to research from 2013.
In fact, the practice of daydreaming has long been used by athletes and performers. By prewiring their brains for success, they’re prepared for success. It’s like practicing mentally to achieve your desired result rather than physically.
But, there is a caveat. If you imagine yourself as a superhero, it would probably leave you disappointed or frustrated. Why? Because this might be a little too far-fetched. But, if you visualize something realistic and structured, you might find that it motivates you. For example, sometimes, I practice a speech I have to make and develop my best material. Sometimes I review and practice how I can use a better voice when talking.
7. Strengthens relationships.
When loved ones are unavailable, daydreaming of them “increased feelings of love, connection, and belonging.”At least that’s what a 2016 study shows. So, if you can’t see your best friend or new partner, daydreaming about them will keep your bonds alive.
How to Daydream Properly
“Daydreaming can have significant upsides for one’s tendency to crack difficult challenges in new ways. This, however, presumes that people deeply care about the work they do, what attracted them to the profession in the first place,” said Markus Baer, professor of organizational behavior at the Olin Business School. “Daydreaming without this focus has significant downsides, which show up most directly in one’s overall performance ratings.”
How can you counter this? “You have to be the actor, director, screenwriter, and audience of a mental performance, ” advises Erin Westgate, Ph.D., a University of Florida psychology professor. “Even though it looks like you’re doing nothing, it’s cognitively taxing.”
If there is no direction, your thoughts wander over to financial concerns, to-do lists, and sad events. In turn, this will leave you bored with musing. However, researchers found that even with a guide, it’s unlikely you’ll reap any rewards unless your thoughts are happy and enjoyable.
In other words, when daydreaming, you need to think about things that are both enjoyable and meaningful.
While this will take practice, you can master this skill by;
- Don’t be afraid to prime your brain with topics you will find enjoyable if you trust that will lead to a good experience.
- It’s important not to confuse thinking about pleasure with planning things.
- Decide the best time to try. We’re more likely to daydream when only a minimal amount of time is occupied by something else, like brushing our teeth or taking a shower.
It’s also important to realize that guiding your thoughts can be difficult at first. So, don’t beat yourself up if you’re struggling a little. And, finally, make the distinction between daydreaming or mind-wandering and fantasizing. After all, unrealistic thoughts are unhelpful and can be addictive — I call these “awfulizing.” So, don’t think awful thoughts about yourself or anyone else.
But mostly, enjoy your daydreaming and make it work for you.
Image credit: mentatdgt; pexels; thank you!