I used to love being alone with my thoughts. (I'm a writer, after all.) But these days, I typically find it difficult to spend time in my own head. What lurks there too often causes anxiety or even depression, and there are so many distractions available as an alternative (hello, iPhone!) that I can easily avoid those unpleasant emotions in favor of, say, mindless scrolling. But research shows that mind wandering, or daydreaming, can actually boost your mood, if done the "right" way—which isn't as easy as it may sound.
When asked to sit down and dedicate time to daydreaming, most people don't find it enjoyable, says Erin C. Westgate, PhD, the director of the Florida Cognition and Emotion Lab. One problem is that it's not as easy to do as people imagine. "It requires a lot of cognitive effort because, as I like to say, you're the screenwriter, actor, director, and audience of this whole mental performance," Westgate explains. "And so you really need to be in a position to be able to give your daydreams undivided attention and focus."
It's also not so easy to direct your thoughts away from what your brain might see as more productive musings, adds Kelsey L. Merlo, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of South Florida. "If we use our 'daydream' time to worry, or think about our to-do list, or ruminate on our super-annoying coworker and all of the things I should have said to put him in his place, then it’s not going to have [a mood] boost," she says. "It may actually drag you down."
Even if you are thinking of more pleasant things than, say, your student loan debt, Westgate's research shows that the thing you're thinking about must also be meaningful in order to glean a mood boost from it. So while you might consider fantasizing about a big bowl of ice cream, doing so is not going to give you the same mental health benefits as daydreaming about, for example, your partner proposing marriage. (Unless, of course, ice cream is meaningful to you in some way. For instance, my now-deceased grandfather was the only one who let me have ice cream as a kid, so the treat reminds me of my favorite person in the world, which gives it meaning.)
- Erin Westgate, PhD, Erin Westgate is Director of the Florida Social Cognition and Emotion Lab and an Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Florida.
- Kelsey L. Merlo, Kelsey L. Merlo is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida who's conducted research on the benefits of mind wandering.
So ultimately, in order to successfully daydream, you need to be able to focus and you need to be able to direct your thoughts to something that is both pleasant and meaningful. For this reason, Westgate and Merlo recommend setting aside time to consciously direct a daydream if you're looking to reap the benefits. Below, they share additional tips for making the most of an intentional mind-wandering session.
How to reap the benefits of daydreaming in 30 minutes (or less!)
1. Be prepared with a list
Before sitting down to daydream, Westgate recommends writing out a list of topics you find both enjoyable and meaningful. This will get your mind wandering in the right direction. "Whether that's the memory of something positive in the past, or maybe something you're looking forward to in the future—or even just pure fantasy, like imagining you're immersed in the world of your favorite novel—anything that's personally meaningful to you, that would be pleasant to think about, [should go on that list]," she says.
2. Start small (or, more accurately, short)
While you can certainly carve out 30 minutes for your daydream sesh, Westgate notes that longer periods of time are going to be more difficult in terms of sustaining focus. "There's been a lot of research on how long our trains of thought last naturally," she says. "They're in the realm of seconds, rather than minutes, if you look at just naturally how long people stay on one train of thought," she continues. "In some of our studies, we look at whether people can enjoy it for three minutes, or one-and-a-half minutes, versus 15 minutes, and the shorter it is, definitely the easier it is for people to keep focus up. And they find it more enjoyable as a result."
So, you might want to start with smaller chunks of time and work your way up to longer sessions. But having the full 30 minutes set aside can allow you time to test-drive various fantasies and daydream-enabling stimuli to see what works best for you.
3. Expand your practice
Westgate suggests using natural moments of downtime to practice daydreaming and give yourself little micro mood boosts throughout the day, too. So while it's great to set aside time for a session, her research shows that people can benefit from using the small chunks of downtime they'd typically spend on their phone to let their minds wander in a positive direction. "When we test this experimentally, we find that it does improve people's mood," she says. You can refer to your list of enjoyable and meaningful thoughts as a shorthand to guide these sessions, too.
This behavioral change is small but significant; after all, we've lost a lot of organic moments of mind wandering throughout the day to technology and its easily accessible distractions, which don't always have the same benefits. Replacing that mindless behavior with a mindful attempt to fantasize about happy things can really make a difference in your overall state of mind.
4. Push through the difficulty
Westgate reiterates that daydreaming is not easy; it's actually harder to get your thoughts "into the clouds" than it is to get your thoughts "out of the clouds." If you initially struggle to keep your mind from going to your to-do list, ruminating on your most recent breakup, or just focusing on anything at all, that's normal. "Because it looks like you're doing nothing—what can be easier than just getting lost in your own daydreams?—some people find it frustrating when they actually have difficulty doing it," she says. "[But] this is a pretty impressive feat of the human brain, to be able to have this sort of immersive experience just with the power of your own thoughts, and so it's not always going to be easy."
Pushing through the challenge is worth it, however, because the benefits go beyond a mood boost. Daydreaming can also increase productivity, according to Merlo's research, and help you reach your goals. According to Westgate, it can even boost pain tolerance. When subjects in one experiment placed their hands in ice-cold water, they were able to leave them there for longer periods of time when they were concurrently fantasizing about something enjoyable and meaningful.
In short, daydreaming can be pretty darn good for us, says Merlo. "It can help us be more creative, find meaning in our lives, give us a break, and, if daydreaming on positive topics, improve our mood," she says. All of this in less than half an hour a day.
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