After a year in quarantine, with many of our usual pastimes unavailable to us, daydreaming has become a welcome escape. But is daydreaming good for you?
We live in such a task-oriented society that the idea of just taking a break to let your mind think freely is often seen as lazy or unproductive. We can’t sit at the doctor’s office without scrolling through social media or go for a walk without listening to a podcast. But we’re actually daydreaming more often than we realize—almost 50% of our waking life, according to a 2010 study done by two Harvard researchers.
Turns out, there are a lot of benefits of daydreaming, according to mental health experts. We asked them to break it down.
What Is Daydreaming?
So what exactly is daydreaming? “Daydreams are fantasies or mental images about the future,” explains Gabriele Oettingen, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at New York University and author of Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation. Think about when your mind wandered off during your last Zoom meeting. Maybe you were thinking about what you were going to eat for lunch or you transported yourself back to a beach vacation.
“You can daydream about the past, about what’s happening in the present, but we often daydream about the future,” Oettingen explains. “They are free thought and images, unconstrained from our experience.”
Daydreaming can become an issue when you start to ruminate or worry over your thoughts, which can lead to anxiety and depression. “When you let your mind wander, it’s good to notice where it goes,” suggests Leslie Ellis, Ph.D., psychotherapist, teacher, and author of A Clinician’s Guide to Dream Therapy.
In severe cases, this can lead to maladaptive daydreaming, which is a psychiatric condition in which daydreams are so persistent that they distract you from your real life. If you’re spending hours living inside your mind, neglecting real-life relationships and responsibilities, it can be a sign to seek professional help. Same goes if you find yourself constantly worrying or your inner critic won’t stop attacking you with negative thoughts.
Benefits of daydreaming
Like all things, daydreaming is best done in moderation. And when that’s the case, it can have some powerful mental health benefits—so put down your phone and give daydreaming a try.
1. Daydreaming can improve your creativity
Ever notice some of your best ideas come to you when you’re not thinking about them? You’re in the shower, then suddenly you know exactly how to solve that pesky problem. “With daydreaming, our mind can make connections that are a little bit further out there,” Ellis explains. “We can put things together that we normally wouldn’t combine.”
A study by UC Santa Barbara asked a control group let their minds wander while trying to solve a creative task. The result? They performed 41% better than the group that didn’t have the break. So if you’ve been trying to work on a problem in a very focused way, it might be time to let your mind drift.
2. Daydreaming can help you manage anxiety
One way anxiety can be thought of is “mind-wandering gone awry.” In a 2016 study from the University of British Columbia, researchers found that allowing your mind to wander away from perceived stress (a.k.a. negative thoughts), you can actually reduce your anxiety. Think of it like a mediation: Instead of pushing the feeling away, recognize it, accept it, and let the thoughts flow through you.
3. Daydreaming can strengthen your relationships
“When we imagine something richly with clear images and even if we can involve other senses, our brain doesn’t distinguish that from reality,” Ellis says. “If we imagine a really heartfelt connection with somebody, to a large part it feels like we did have one.”