“As a child, I fancied being lost in a forest,” Kulkarni said. “Wilderness expands one’s sense of possibilities, so things tend to get pretty fantastical in the forests I imagine.” While her head is in the clouds, her imaginary feet enjoy magical waterfalls, fields of yellow flowers or cozy bathtubs that overlook lush valleys.
She’s not alone. Adults spend as much as 47% of their waking lives letting their minds wander, according to one Harvard study that tracked participants with an app. Other studies say that percentage varies wildly, depending how you classify it. However, none of these studies paint staring off into space in a positive light. For decades, psychologists have equated daydreaming with a failure of cognitive control, focusing on how it stunts abilities like task processing, reading comprehension and memory. Yet, Jerome Singer, a former professor at Pennsylvania State University and the father of daydreaming research, hypothesized that daydreaming can have a positive effect. If not, why would our minds be so prone to wander?
Unlike the psychologists who have portrayed daydreaming as wholly wasteful, Singer said some daydreaming was advantageous and some counterproductive. To him, negative daydreams came in two forms: painful, obsessive fantasies, and an undisciplined inability to concentrate.
But he also proposed some playful, creative reveries, called positive constructive daydreaming, could be beneficial. Whereas the negative daydreams indicate a loss of control, people purposefully jump into the playful kind. This idea was revolutionary when Singer proposed it 70 years ago.
So most psychologists have used daydreaming over the years as a barometer for a patient’s mental state rather than as a productive tool to change it. Now, a growing body of research and evidence from clinical therapy suggest we can use purposeful, playful daydreaming to improve our overall well-being. New research shows that daydreaming can inspire happiness if you purposefully engage with meaningful topics, such as pleasant memories of loved ones or imagined scenes of triumph in the face of all odds. In a recent study published in the journal Emotion, researchers tested how much pleasure people derived from thinking. Participants left to their own devices were more likely to gravitate toward worrying or neutral topics like work or school, and they were left with negative or neutral feelings after the session.
When given a framework that guided them to imagine something positive, like a fantasy of having superpowers, they were 50% more likely to feel positive after the session. Why couldn’t they do that on their own? Erin Westgate, a psychology professor at the University of Florida and the study’s lead author, said that positive daydreaming is a heavier cognitive lift. So, our brains move toward effortless mind wandering, even when the results are negative. Using your imagination “seems like it should be easy,” Westgate 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.” But learning how to control your imagination correctly is worth the hassle.
Renner writes on lifestyle for NYT©2021
The New York Times