You might spend as much as half your life daydreaming. According to one Harvard study, adults spend as much as 47 percent of their waking lives letting their minds wander. For many decades, daydreaming—also known as zoning out—has been equated with mental atrophy. As a failure of cognitive control, research focused on how it stunted abilities like task processing, reading comprehension and memory. Hence the teacher scolding you for looking out the window with a far off look in your eye.
That all changed when Jerome Singer, a former professor at Pennsylvania State University and the father of daydreaming research, suggested that daydreaming can have a positive effect, and demonstrated adaptive behavior. Dr. Singer said some daydreaming was beneficial—positive constructive daydreaming, he called it—and some counterproductive. To him, negative daydreams came in two forms: painful, obsessive fantasies and an undisciplined inability to concentrate. Making the choice to daydream optimistically is an unsung superpower of consciousness, whereas compulsive worst case scenario thinking is imagination gone awry.
Since that’s the case, instead of feeling guilty about it when your mind starts to ramble, you may as well appreciate the perks. Embrace daydreaming as private, internal stream of consciousness than can lead to big life changes. Seen through a favorable lens, daydreaming is a playful, high functioning expression of the imagination. Give yourself permission to “live the dream” in the richest possible sense.
Daydreaming helps you achieve your goals
Dreaming can be thought of as a backdoor form of planning, with a bent toward “prospective bias,” in which daydreamers think about the future and their long-term goals. It’s “autobiographical planning”–you entertain possible future scenarios unfolding. You’re exploring possible courses of action, which is incredible asset for planning.
Daydreaming alleviates stress
Many psychologists believe that dreams represent an advanced coping strategy in which you can alter or escape from an often unsatisfactory or unpleasant world of reality. As an antidote to the grind, dreams offer a benign escape into an imaginary realm. Similar to meditation, daydreaming can function as an adaptive form of anxiety management, by tempering the external environment’s stimulation in favor of a more inner directed experience.
Daydreaming boosts problem solving
Researchers believe that daydreaming’s inherent divergent thinking is what allows you to think of new solutions and possibilities, even when you aren’t directly working on tasks or problems. A daydream lets certain ideas and issues “marinate” or “incubate” in your unconscious mind. Just the way regular dreams can present an “aha” idea, so daydreams can resolve dilemmas in surprising ways.
Daydreaming disrupts the status quo
Our brains are designed to take breaks, even short breaks throughout our day-to-day life, to help us retain information longer and transfer it into long-term memory. All work and no dream makes you dull, in other words. Part of the power of daydreaming is it introduces dishabituation: The restoration to full strength of a response that has become weakened by habituation.
Daydreaming enhances creativity
Increasing the amount of imaginative daydreaming you do can be beneficial simply because it allows your mind to wander across unpredictable, imaginative landscapes you don’t typically inhabit. Daydreaming expands your horizons, reveals creative vistas and hidden potentials.
Especially during a mundane task, such as folding the laundry, where you don’t have to focus too hard on the task at hand, daydreaming is a portal to the mystery of our being. This allows space in your psyche to receive and reveal new information.
How to daydream more
Want to start daydreaming more but at a loss for how where to begin? Try these three steps to get the wheels of your imagination turning.
Begin with intention
Where do you want to go with your daydream? Allow the answer to come without rushing it. It might take a few minutes for the direction to emerge, so stay connected to your deepest essence and let the intention arise.
Let the expression be unique
Whether you are a doodler, a musician, a writer, a gardener, a hiker— any passion or hobby can be used in your daydreaming journey. Whatever gets you into a flow can help activate the daydreaming process.
Treat your daydreaming practice the way you would any new endeavor, by giving it time to unfold and take root. Do it regularly, even for just five minutes, and see what new horizons start to expand for you.
At the heart of it, the reflective aspect of daydreaming is central to the task of meaning making. It’s how you develop and maintain an understanding of yourself in the world. Sometimes daydreaming creeps in without our full knowledge, but some occurs because you actively choose to decouple from external tasks and perceptions. When you choose to focus on an internal stream of thought with open awareness, you actively engage your mind to roam freely within your mental landscapes. The astonishment is that out of that spaciousness is where your best and most productive insights will be found.