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.”
A 2016 study looking at whether daydreaming could be a substitute when loved ones were unavailable found those who daydreamed about their significant other had “increased feelings of love, connection, and belonging.” Meaning, if you can’t see your best friend or new partner right now, daydreaming about them can help keep those connections strong.4. Daydreaming can make you more productive
The answer to being more productive is all about taking breaks, even better if it’s a mind-wandering one. A recent study from the Georgia Institute of Technology found that daydreamers who were able to take even micro-breaks felt more refreshed and rejuvenated, with newfound energy to take on their next task. Next time you’re feeling tired or overwhelmed at work, it might be time to take a mini mind escape.5. Daydreaming can make you happier at work
Whether it’s the stress of working at home or the pressure of your job, daydreaming while on the clock has been shown to boost your mood. A recent study found that when you let your mind wander, say after a stressful meeting or intense work session, you return feeling more positive. Their conclusion: Daydreaming can enhance employee well-being and create long-term job satisfaction.6. Daydreaming can help you achieve your goals
“If you want to fulfill your wishes, start with daydreaming, then find your obstacle,” says Oettingen, whose 20-year research found that fantasizing alone is de-motivating when it comes to making a change or reaching a goal.
Instead of just daydreaming about what you want, Oettingen suggests using her science-based strategy called WOOP to achieve it. In essence, you start by identifying your (realistic) wish, imagine the best outcome and obstacles, and then create a plan to overcome those obstacles.
How to keep your daydreaming in check
It’s important to make the distinction between daydreaming or mind-wandering and fantasizing. Fantasizing is what Ellis calls a “self-directed wish fulfillment.”
It in itself fantasizing isn’t necessarily bad and can be a quick mood lifter when done sparingly, but when it strays into the unrealistic—say fantasizing you’re in a relationship with Bridgerton star Regé-Jean Page (sorry!)—it has a similar effect as too much time on social media (i.e., feeling like garbage). “Unhelpful fantasizing has a feeling of overindulgence, like too much rich food. It has an addictive quality,” Ellis says.
By distinction, daydreaming is more creative, she says. “You can’t overdose on it.” If you want to set limits on your fantasizing, Ellis suggests changing the channel. In other words, read a book, talk to a friend, or catch a show on Netflix. But the next time you catch yourself daydreaming, go with the flow. You might be surprised by the results.