The human mind is rarely completely idle. Even when you’re not consciously thinking about or concentrating on something, it tends to drift or wander. You should follow it sometimes because these spontaneous musings can provide insights into your creative, social and emotional lives. Besides, chances are you spend a significant amount of time in musing mode. By some accounts, mind-wandering accounts for one-third to half of a person’s thoughts, notes Eric Klinger, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota–Morris and author of “Daydreaming: Using Waking Fantasy and Imagery for Self-Knowledge and Creativity.”
Over the years, daydreaming has been alternately described as a waste of time, living with your head in the clouds or a valuable part of the creative process. While we all do it, it turns out that some forms of daydreaming are good for you — and others, not so much. Here are three things your daydreams could be telling you about yourself.
They Could Reflect Your Goals
Consciously or not, people are often better at making up scenarios around specific goals than they are about people or places, Klinger says, and that’s part of what makes some forms of daydreaming so beneficial. “These short bursts of thought often contain reminder mechanisms for what your various goals and expectations are,” Klinger explains. “Daydreaming involves a number of cognitive functions — planning ahead, engaging in creative problem-solving, imagining how a situation is going to come out, revisiting past experiences and seeing them in new ways and learning lessons from old experiences.”
For example, if you’re preparing to give a presentation at work or to compete in an athletic event, and you have a daytime reverie about performing at your best, that kind of daydreaming can be beneficial because it’s sort of a mental rehearsal. What’s more, Klinger adds, there may be a memory consolidation benefit with thoughts that stem from mind-wandering, a perk that’s similar to — but weaker than — the memory consolidation perks that take place during sleep. Taken together, these benefits can “promote goal pursuit and reinforce your commitment to your goals,” Klinger says.
Your Daydreaming Style Could Relate to Your Emotional Well-being
In a series of studies published in a 2016 issue of the journal Consciousness and Cognition, researchers at Carleton University in Canada examined how positive-constructive daydreaming, guilty-dysphoric daydreaming and the poor attentional control form correlated with psychological well-being. They found that positive-constructive daydreaming — typically characterized by playful, vivid imagery and the use of daydreaming for future planning — was more strongly associated with personal growth, purpose in life and positive mood. By contrast, guilty-dysphoric daydreaming — which often includes obsessive, torturous fantasies — was associated with depressive symptoms, negative mood and lower psychological well-being. Meanwhile, poor attentional control — a propensity to have trouble concentrating — was associated with lower overall well-being.
Similarly, a study in a 2016 issue of Imagination, Cognition and Personality found that people who engaged in constructive daydreaming had greater feelings of authentic living and lower feelings of alienation from their true selves; by contrast, those who engaged in guilty/fear-of-failure daydreaming had lower feelings of authentic living and greater feelings of being alienated from themselves.
Daydreaming becomes maladaptive when it involves rumination — repeatedly thinking about what’s going wrong in your life or dwelling on potentially bad outcomes — or sinking into daydreaming instead of using conscious forms of thought that would be more helpful, Klinger says. With the maladaptive form, people spend an excessive amount of time engaged in mental fantasy, a pattern that’s associated with higher rates of attention deficit, obsessive compulsive and dissociation disorders. A study in the November 2017 issue of Europe’s Journal of Psychology found that with mind-wandering episodes involving ruminative self-focus, people’s minds tend to drift towards anguished fantasies, failures and aggression, which can be deeply unsettling. Of course, if you daydream to excess — to the point where you aren’t getting your work done or paying attention to your family — that’s a problem, too.
The Social Content of Your Daydreams Could Help You Feel More Connected to Others — or Not
In a study in a 2016 issue of Frontiers in Psychology, researchers examined the daydream content of 103 participants as they adjusted to university life over the course of a month. What they found is that over time, the participants’ daydreams became less fanciful and reflected more positive characteristics, attributes that predicted their greater social adaptation to the university setting. “Our research suggests that social daydreams are able to regulate people’s social feelings such that they feel more connected to other people and have a greater sense of belonging,” explains study co-author Peter Totterdell, a professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield in England. “In turn, this appears to change their interactions with other people — they are more likely to act pro-socially by helping others, which is likely to enhance how they feel about those interactions. Social daydreams may also help people to make sense of their interactions with others and plan them better.”
Previously, a study from York University in Toronto examined the relationship between daydreaming and variables like life satisfaction, loneliness and perceived social support. What they found is that daydreaming about people you’re not close to is associated with more loneliness and less perceived social support, whereas daydreaming about people who are close to you predicts greater life satisfaction, regardless of the actual size of your social network. The theory: “Thinking about people who we are actually close with — romantic partners, close family and friends — likely reminds us of all the positive aspects of our social life,” explains lead author Raymond Mar, an associate professor of psychology at York University. “In contrast, daydreaming about people we’re not actually close with — unrequited romantic interests, family and friends we’ve lost touch with or become estranged from — might remind us of the difficulties we have in our social world.”
The good news: You can point your daydreams in the right direction so they’ll benefit you. Rather than blindly being a daydream believer, you can become a daydream driver by choosing to imagine the positive consequences of goals you’re pursuing or people you care about. “Our research indicates that deliberately daydreaming about someone close to you in a way that is realistic, positive and set in the near future is most likely to have beneficial psychological outcomes,” Totterdell says.
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