If you’ve ever been told to get your head out of the clouds, you probably think of daydreaming in a negative light. But it can actually be good for you, says Muireann Irish, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Sydney. She says the activity is unfairly maligned. Rather than being useless, she says daydreaming is “a highly evolved” mental pursuit.
It’s time we reclaimed the daydream.Credit:Stocksy
While people who are daydreaming might outwardly appear inactive, research involving scans of their brains reveals the opposite to be true. “Their brains are actively generating really rich content, and this is underpinned by widespread brain activity,” Irish says.
Not only are their brains firing away, daydreaming has a host of other benefits, too. First, Irish explains, it may improve our sense of identity. That’s because when we’re daydreaming, we’re consolidating links between our past and future selves. “And this promotes a sense of continuity and identity.”
It can also help strengthen our relationships, as a significant chunk of daydreaming involves thinking about other people. This improves our ability to empathise. “We wonder about how they are doing, and we introspect and try to understand their behaviours,” she says.
Then there’s the obvious benefit: boosting creativity. That can lead to better problem-solving skills and bursts of inspiration. Susan, a 54-year-old small business owner and lifelong daydreamer, marinates in the perks of the practice. She uses it to problem-solve, but she also turns to it for inspiration. Picturing her future encourages her to take the steps to achieve her dreams. “It’s almost like a mood board in my head,” she says.
When she simply wants to unwind, Susan imagines herself swimming in a crystal-clear rainforest creek, lulled by birdsong as she soaks up the joys of nature. This scenario, Susan says, is her “go-to” for better mental health.
If you’re looking to boost your mood through daydreaming, research shows the key lies in what you focus on. The research, published last year in the journal Emotion, discovered that when participants were asked to daydream about purely positive experiences, like eating cake, they didn’t find it deeply satisfying. Conversely, thinking about solely meaningful experiences often led to “heavy”, unenjoyable thoughts.
But when participants daydreamed about subjects both meaningful and positive, they enjoyed themselves 50 per cent more than when they only focused on something meaningful. The researchers were struck by how rarely participants realised they could bring themselves joy by daydreaming, or “thinking for pleasure”.
If you want to discover those joys for yourself, study author Erin Westgate says you can start by believing daydreaming is a skill you can improve on. Remind yourself it’s not a time to tackle your to-do list or map out your plans. Don’t ruminate or obsess over negative experiences, either, adds Irish.
Remind yourself it’s not a time to tackle your to-do list or map out your plans. Don’t ruminate or obsess over negative experiences, either.
Then, carve out time during mundane activities to let your mind wander. Irish says brushing your teeth and showering are great opportunities to daydream because these activities don’t require much mental effort, so your mind is free to roam.
Lastly, Westgate advises prompting yourself with subjects you enjoy. Susan spends her days dipping in and out of pleasant imaginings, memories with loved ones, and hopes for her future, and feels nourished from these musings. “It’s like slipping into a pair of comfortable slippers,” she says.
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