I thought I’d kicked daydreaming years ago. It was a childhood phase that lost allure with age, alongside pigtail braids and Trix for breakfast.
But when I resumed running after a month-long injury, my mind also took off, tumbling and turning in a familiar fashion. I hadn’t shed the habit in the slightest. My grown-up daydreams starred the most-accomplished version of myself, waltzing out of an important office, galley of my future bestseller in hand, to meet the love of my life for a stroll during which we’d reminisce about how we spent my advance traveling the world before donating the remainder to causes near and dear to my heart.
Daydreaming certainly isn’t being present, nor necessarily mindful, nor is it in contention for this year’s biggest wellness trend. It’s often dismissed as the enemy of focus and action. Was I sneaking off each morning to watch my version of perfect-life porn, or was I actually accomplishing something while absorbed in these visions?
Out of curiosity, I spoke with Jonathan Schooler, who runs the META (Memory Emotion Thought Awareness) Lab at the University of California Santa Barbara, which studies daydreaming, mind wandering and mindfulness, and Claire Zedelius, a fellow neuroscientist at the META Lab. Schooler told me my daydreams were common, often referred to as “Autobiographical Planning” or “Positive Constructive.” He also said that they were potentially beneficial. The roles you repeatedly assume in your daydreams can help you identify what, specifically, you’d like to achieve. Daydreaming’s lack of structure is ideal for unpacking subjects that benefit from creative, disjointed solutions, such as plotting a trajectory to a dream job.
Schooler offered examples of a scientist using daydreaming to sift through puzzling conceptual issues, and a writer daydreaming to develop plot or toy with word choice.
Can you set a focus or intention for a daydream? “Absolutely,” said Schooler, but it may not be necessary. Unsolved problems tend to stick with us, he explained, while those solved are easily forgotten (this is known as the “Zeigarnik effect”). We often say, “I’d like to sleep on it,” when faced with a dilemma we can’t resolve during a set timeframe. These issues are likely to pop up the next time we surrender ourselves to a daydreaming spell, possibly providing insight or a solution.
Mind wandering about something that you find important, meaningful or interesting can lead to greater happiness. Zedelius made a distinction between a positive thought that is not necessarily meaningful — like, “I wish I were laying on the beach in the sun” — and a thought that is positive and meaningful, such as how to be a better person or more successful at something.
We discussed my particular fondness for daydreaming while working out. Running is a physical task that is not mentally engaging, Schooler told me, which is why it inspires mind wandering. Zedelius finds that she mind wanders while doodling which, if done for long stretches of time, can lead her to “deeper daydreaming.”
Exercise might have even more of an effect on daydreaming than other mindless physical activities, Schooler speculated. He reminded me of misattribution — if something is experienced in one context, it tends to bleed over into other contexts (such as when a bad day at work leads to interpreting comments from your partner when you arrive home negatively). If the act of exercising makes you feel good, this could lead to positive daydreaming. Once exercise reaches a truly strenuous level, it could further clear the mind, reducing mental chatter. “The thoughts that remain could be particularly insightful,” said Schooler. Zedelius added an important point: “If you actually enjoy it, then it might even motivate you for the next time you run.”
Corinne Fitzgerald, a lifelong runner, personal trainer and coach at Mile High Run Club, advocates preparing for races by visualizing the hardest parts of the course during the hardest parts of a workout. She also acknowledged that not every type of workout warrants this type of laser focus. On long runs, she said, “I let my mind wander and usually end up in some sort of a meditative state. Sometimes I feel like I am daydreaming and before I know it, seven or eight miles will have gone by effortlessly…Crazy things can go through a runner’s mind.”
Creative solutions to meaningful problems, increased happiness, motivation to work out — I’m sold on daydreaming. Enter Gabriele Oettingen, psychology professor at NYU and recent author of Rethinking Positive Thinking. Her research can give pause; the title of a sample study: “Pleasure now, pain later: Positive fantasies about the future predict symptoms of depression.” Oettingen agrees that daydreaming can make us very happy — too happy, in fact. Optimism at the outset of identifying a goal can cause people to lose incentive for working hard to accomplish the goal.
Oettingen is working towards a solution, developing a strategy called “Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions” in the lab, and what she calls “WOOP”— Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan — which encourages people to consider the difficulties they may encounter as they pursue their goals. Daydreams still contribute, but most significantly towards step one: identifying your most fervent wish.
In the slim memoir The Odd Woman and the City, author Vivian Gornick recalls her life-long relationship to New York City and long, daily walks of the city’s streets. She writes:
“During those walks I daydreamed incessantly… mostly I daydreamed the future: the tomorrow in which I would write a book of enduring value, meet the companion of my life, become the woman of character I had yet to become, Ah, that tomorrow! How wonderfully its energetic projections got me through innumerable days of wasteful passivity.”
Upon reaching a milestone birthday, she stops. Overnight, retreating into the refuge of a fantasized tomorrow became a thing of the past. Now, there was only the immensity of the vacated present.
During our conversation, Zedelius confessed, “I don’t think that any person on Earth does not daydream or could train themselves not to daydream, no matter how many hours you meditate.” By daydreaming smarter — with more awareness, about creative obstacles, incorporating anticipated missteps — these dreams can not only inform our desires, but also help us to act on them. We can turn our “fantasized tomorrow” not into a retreat, but a reality.
Collage and illustrations by Maria Jia Ling Pitt; photos by Anthony Barboza, ANDREW COWIE/AFP and Bettmann via Getty Images.