Western culture tends to look down on daydreamers—as if it’s a childish habit that we’re supposed to outgrow, along with make-believe games and imaginary friends. But none other than Sigmund Freud, the father of modern psychology, thought that most adults daydream too little. Daydreaming, he theorized, is important for creative thinking. When we indulge in fantasies about our hopes for the future, we prepare ourselves to deal with reality.
Take a poor orphan headed to a job interview, for example. Freud imagined the orphan fantasizing about getting the gig, wowing the boss, marrying his daughter, and taking over the business, thus recovering the family and comforts lost, all before reaching the meeting. “Past, present and future are strung together, as it were, on the thread of the wish that runs through them,” he wrote. To the extent that this fantasy can inspire the orphan to make his daydreams come true, threading wishes can be a good idea.
Now a new study, led by cognitive psychologist Michael Kane at the University of North Carolina Greensboro and published in Psychological Science, confirms that daydreaming can be positive—depending on the context and content of our fantasies.
Kane’s team tracked 274 college students over a week as they daydreamed in their daily life, using electronic devices to prompt students to record their thoughts, as well as what they were currently doing, eight times a day. The study also asked students about their daydreams in a traditional lab setting.
The researchers found that the students whose minds wandered during tests in the lab tended to be worried—they were anxiously thinking about problems, not focusing on the task at hand. But the people whose minds wandered frequently in real life weren’t brooding; they were dreaming when the context allowed it, and they were more often able to focus in the lab test context.
The results suggest, Kane says, that people with good cognitive control—who also tend to score high on tests of intelligence and achievement—adapt their thinking to circumstantial demands. They daydream when they’re free to do so, and focus when it’s necessary.
Kane explains that when we’re daydreaming, we’re not attending to the external environment or optimally engaging in an ongoing activity. So to the extent that attention matters—in the classroom or during an important presentation—there’s a cost to daydreaming.
But if context or activity is unimportant or easy, then daydreaming can be good for thinking through a problem or puzzle, or to mentally escape a dull or unpleasant context. The danger, Kane warns, is that even if we can afford to be on autopilot and don’t need to worry about ongoing performance, daydreams that tend toward unproductive or negative topics can decrease mood and develop into ruminative thinking patterns.
That said, as long as your mind isn’t wandering over your problems again and agaian, fantasizing can be useful. Take my Quartz colleague, health and science writer Katherine Ellen Foley. Because she is exceptionally disciplined, Foley specifically schedules daydreaming into her day. She has specific rules for this activity. During her daily runs, long ones especially, Foley’s mind-wandering is determinedly positive.
“I’m only allowed to play out situations exactly like I’d want to them to play out, best-case scenario,” she explained. “I’m not allowed to tell myself that these ideas are dumb, or that they’d never happen or that the subject matter is stupid. I let myself think that if it’s my heart’s desire, it’s okay to dream about in that moment.”
I ask her why she doesn’t think this way all the time.
Quite reasonably, Foley says, ”I like that idea, but I worry it would lead to perpetual disappointment. My concern is that a lot of my daydreams involve people treating me differently than they actually would in real life, and there’s not much I can do in real life to change [that].” So—like Freud’s imagined orphan—she has fantasies where everything goes great and every move she makes is awesome. Believe me, I get it.
I’m pretty lax about my fantasies compared to Foley. My dedicated daily mind-wandering happens in the morning, while I’m sipping coffee, before I’ve really woken up and entered reality. I don’t know what goes on during that time, really. Still, I’m sure my reflections are connected to writing and organizing the day ahead.
Though I long to bounce out of bed wide-awake and eager to start the morning, I suspect that my mind needs this interim period. Maybe I’m dreaming up a better day than the one I would have if I charged right in. Or maybe my mind’s just taking its time while it still can.
Either way, I’ve long been convinced having my head in the clouds has benefits—and I’m happy that there’s proof that daydreaming doesn’t make you a flake. Maybe you’re just making wishes—the better to act on later.