Different types of daydreaming are both good and bad. It is proven to boost creativity, motivate you, and make you more effective in your day to day life. Those same daydreams are also proven to lead to stress, remove motivation, and create unrealistic expectations.
How can this be? In the case of motivation, daydreaming about the future can motivate you and demotivate you!
The information about daydreaming is frustrating. During my dopamine fast I realized that I spend a lot of time daydreaming. I think I have always done it, but the free time I generated for the 40 days must have made me really notice it.
I am hoping this article will help other people recognize their daydreams, but I also want to help people to use their daydreams positively.
The interesting thing is that this does not mean changing your daydreams to be all unicorns and rainbows. The data on this is literally all over the map.
The biggest study about mind wandering shows that we are happier when we are not mind wandering and we are in the moment, regardless of whether the daydream is happy or sad.
There is also maladaptive daydreaming, escapism and rumination, all of which can be about positive things.
That being said, there are literally thousands of peer-reviewed articles about the power of positive thinking. Again, how can this be?
My answer is that it all depends on how conscious you are of your daydreams. There are four types of daydreaming: visualization, fantasy, escapism, and rumination. These are listed in order of most conscious to least conscious.
This helps explain the confusion because what matters is the type of daydreaming not the subject. Here are a few examples:
How different types of daydreaming effect different subjects
Planning is probably the most popular type of daydreaming. Some people may not think of daydreaming, but daydreaming is technically defined as when the consciousness moves away from external stimuli. When you are planning what you are going to do, you are not paying attention to what is going on around you.
Planning is also a good place to start because it is so obviously a necessary human skill. For this example, I am going to take the simple task of planning your day.
This happens when you get out of be in the morning and run through your day in your head. You sort the easy things from the hard things as you see yourself doing them, and you get mentally prepared. Our spacial memory is our strongest memory, so seeing ourselves do some of the things on our list also helps to implant the to-do list in your mind. This combo of prepping yourself and embedding it in your memory is so important you probably rarely allow yourself to leave the house before it is accomplished.
Now you are in your car and driving to work. This is a time where we usually permit ourselves to daydream but is less of a conscious exercise than the morning visualization (more people are killed in car accidents while daydreaming than talking on cellphones so I am not saying this is a good idea, but it happens.) During this type of daydreaming you usually go back to the really good or bad things that you have to do and flesh them out a bit more. This time is ripe for creative breakthroughs. You are not specifically controlling where your mind wanders, and research show this is an amazing way to bump into new solutions to old problems
It is 3 o’clock and dumb time to plan a board meeting but your superiors don’t care. It is proven that when we are exposed to exceptionally boring or strenuous tasks it is difficult to keep our brains on track. This is a mechanism to save energy in the brain, but in the modern world it can cause a lot of stress when you are missing out on things you need to do. On the flip side, you still may come up with creative solutions to problems.
At the end of the day you have log jam of things planned and you are not sure how to get through them all. You fine tune your visualization after you survive the board meeting, but your tired stressed brain doesn’t stop there. As you go back to your desk a loop begins. Playing the scenario at the end of the day over and over. You don’t even realize it is happening, but sometimes when you are trying to focus on other things it gets annoying. You stop it, but it comes back a few minutes later without an invitation causing you more stress and tiring you out further.
Thinking about the future is probably the second most popular type of daydreaming. It is also a great skill to have as humans. We can take an action out on the road for a spin before ever having to commit to it. For this example I am going to use your future holiday to Thailand.
While checking your emails, you get an offer for last minute flights to Thailand. You are a smart saver and want to retire early, so the deal doesn’t get your heart racing the way it would for other people, but you let your mind take a brief journey. You feel the sun, smell the salt water, and taste the fresh sea food. Just that experience physically relaxes you and makes you feel better. You realize how much you need a holiday and go for it.
After the decision you take your dog for a walk. Again, this is a time you can purposefully let your mind just drift. You imagine the airport. You wonder if people speak English. And, then your dog takes a poo. You realize you need to update your passport, buy a dictionary, and find a sitter for your dog.
In the morning it is snowing and your house is cold. Instead of figuring out your day you begin craving getting out of there. You forget all pile of stuff you need for your presentation later that day.
Your day didn’t start well and after your botched presentation all you can do is think about how much your job sucks and how much better Thailand will be. You don’t notice that your friend is having an actual bad day at work because your emotions get so messed up from your brain running out of control.
3. Blast from the Past
The third and final location we allow our brain to wander to is the past. This one is a bit more perplexing when it comes to understanding its positive evolutionary value, but it is still an amazing learning exercise. In fact, the trips to the future probably wouldn’t be useful at all if we didn’t have past experiences we could relate them to. For this scenario, I want to use something a bit more negative, so we are going to take you back to the time you crashed your dad’s car.
Immediately after the accident you are being interviewed by the police (you weren’t injured thank goodness!) You are reluctant to go over the traumatic experience in your head but you start from the beginning. Your mind is immediately gripped because of the adrenaline the memory causes, and you relive every feeling. Now you see the space to the right side of the car you could have gone to rather than slamming on the gas pedal. This intense visualization will probably be lost to your consciousness in a few years, but the next time you are sliding towards a pedestrian your brain will instantaneously pull up that information.
You sit down to watch Mad Max and a car crash reminds you of your own. You enter the movies and become a character. Your level of focus on the actual storyline decreases and your brain takes the chance while you are just lazing on the couch to do some of its own internal organizing. Two hours later you feel totally refreshed and relaxed.
However, when you go to clean the kitchen you find yourself not motivated. You are still in Mad Max and you are the hero of it all. You have gotten your dopamine system all fired up and now the simple act of cleaning the kitchen seems incredibly boring.
On your drive to work a guy cuts you off and you swerve out of the way. He could have killed you. Rage grows in your mind. At the next stoplight, you pull up next to him and want to yell out your window and don’t. The rest of the day is spent in a spiral of progressively more and more angry repetitions of the things you should have said to that guy.
You have probably veered off in your own brief daydreams even as you read this. You can see that this progression from control to rumination can happen with almost anything you can imagine.
I find that one of the most helpful things for stopping yourself before you get to far past escapism is rotating your tasks, and giving yourself time to purposefully daydream (go for a walk or watch some mindless TV). Also, for me, simply being aware of my ability to lose conscious control has been helpful!