Dream a little (day)dream. It's good for you.
Do you ever find that, um … sorry, I lost my train of thought. I guess I was daydreaming. Where was I?
Oh yes: Daydreaming.
If you're one of those who go around with their head in the clouds, you might actually be doing your brain some good, as well as making yourself more productive and happier. Yes, far from being a guilty pleasure, daydreaming is a useful pursuit — and a skill you can cultivate.
Keeping focus is good, too, and it's important for keeping us safe and doing well on the job. You certainly don't want to be lost in a daydream (wasn't that a song by the Lovin' Spoonful?) when you're driving, operating machinery or performing any task that requires your full attention. You don't want your surgeon daydreaming while she's taking out your appendix!
But research has shown our brains are hard-wired for daydreaming. In fact, one study from 2009 reported that nearly half of our thoughts are daydreams. If it's not important, why are we humans so predisposed to it?
Let's first define what daydreaming is not. It's not fantasizing about winning the lottery or becoming a contestant on the “Great British Baking Show.” It's also not ruminating, which is when your thoughts obsessively return to the same negative thoughts or problems (like paying bills) without finding a solution.
Nor is it simply “letting the mind wander,” which can lead our thoughts down some dark paths.
Daydreams are just that: dreams we experience while we are awake. They act like brief diversions from our cares and responsibilities. They can help us clear the cobwebs out of our mental pathways and bring us pleasant moments, particularly when we daydream about the things that make us smile.
But daydreaming is not easy, says Erin Westgate, a psychology professor at the University of Florida who wrote a recent study. Using your imagination “seems like it should be easy,” she said. When you daydream, you're acting as the “screenwriter, director, audience and performer in a whole mental drama going on in your head. That's incredibly cognitively demanding.”
Westgate offers these tips:
1.) Believe that daydreaming is a skill you can build with practice.
2.) Remind yourself that this is not a time to run your to-do list or plan a vacation.
3.) Try it out when you are doing something only mildly engaging, like folding laundry or taking a shower. When the brain is slightly occupied, we are more likely to daydream. “The next time you're walking, instead of pulling out your phone, try it,” Westgate says.
4.) Most importantly, tell yourself that daydreaming can feel wonderful if you prompt your thoughts with subjects you enjoy.
So how do you start cultivating the ability to daydream?
The first thing is to give yourself permission. This seems counterintuitive in today's go-go-go world, in which staring out the window for 20 minutes seems like a waste. Remember: It's not a waste.
Then minimize distractions (i.e. put away your phone!) and find a quiet place. Finally, exercise some direction over your mental wanderings so as not to stew in negativity.
When's a good time to daydream? As Westgate says, when your mind is mildly engaged, like riding on a subway or bus, or looking out an airplane window. When you're working out, particularly if it's a solo pursuit like running or swimming, let the daydreams flow. If you're breaking for a cup of coffee at work or are between classes, take a few minutes to daydream. It's tempting to daydream during a boring meeting or class — just be sure no one's going to call on you!
What kinds of things make good daydreams? You could imagine a future for yourself. You could project yourself as a character in the book you're reading. You might ponder something creative, like a new recipe or even an invention. A solution to a puzzle or problem may present itself, seemingly out of nowhere. Jot a few notes to yourself as prompts for the next time you daydream.
I mostly daydream about travel to foreign lands. During the pandemic, that pleasure was curtailed, but I look forward to going back to my beloved Ireland, South Africa and other places where I have met wonderful, kind people doing great good in the world … they always inspire me to do more. I also dream about my future “happy place” where I can go to escape. It will be full of nature and beauty where my little dogs and I can walk for hours by the ocean and mountains and just stare in wonder at the beauty of God's creation.
So, most important, be patient with yourself. Like any new skill, effective daydreaming takes time and practice.
Now that you're done reading this, put it aside and give yourself some time to daydream about how you can become a better daydreamer!
• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates (www.NorthShoreRN.com). She is offering a free, 30-minute phone consultation by calling (312) 788-2640 to make an appointment.