“Focus on the sensations coming from your coffee,” invites the New York Times in a weekly series on how to be mindful of the mundane: brushing your teeth, stopping at a red light, checking Facebook. “Notice the warmth, the rising steam. How does the cup feel in your hand?”
And perhaps this is indeed a question worth considering. In the past few years, mindfulness has achieved a kind of cult status in popular culture, and for good reason: Research in psychology has suggested that practicing a little mindfulness can improve your life in a wide range of ways. It can help you eat a little healthier; it can also help you feel a little happier. And yet it’s also worth spending a portion of your mental energy on what you could consider the opposite of mindfulness: daydreaming, or letting your mind drift far away from the here and the now.
A penchant for daydreaming is often seen as a negative thing, as it’s essentially a distraction from real life. It’s anecdotally associated with a lack of productivity, and, in extreme circumstances, a significantly and persistently blurred line between the real world and the dreamworld can even indicate psychiatric problems. Research has associated daydreaming with bad moods; as the authors of one study phrased it, “People are thinking about what is not happening almost as often as they are thinking about what is and … doing so typically makes them unhappy.” Culturally speaking, a dreamy vibe is considered whimsical, and although drifting into la-la land can be fun, it’s typically seen as a waste of time.
This view may not be entirely accurate, however, as research is hinting that daydreaming can be a personally, and maybe even professionally, productive way to spend our time, too. Daydreaming, says cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, can do a variety of positive things for us. It can “pass the time in a pleasurable fashion”; it can also help people “rehearse something in their mind that they’re anxious about.” In 2013, a meta-analysis suggested that daydreaming can “allow us to connect our past and future selves together,” thus helping us make long term plans and providing us with a new well of creative inspiration. (The first half of that paper’s title is too good not to share: “Not all minds that wander are lost.”)
A 2012 study also suggested that daydreaming can enhance creativity and help consolidate memories about ourselves. It’s also “linked to a style of long-term decision making characterized by patience rather than impulsivity,” so it could be helping us make smart choices about ourselves and our lives, too. If you have a boring job or have to complete tedious tasks, daydreaming can help you deal with boredom, which can often be mentally taxing — Eric Klinger, a social psychologist, suggested that 75 percent of workers in “boring jobs” used daydreams to help them deal with their work. And yet there is “no universal purpose” for daydreaming, Kaufman argues; what you get out of it, or don’t, depends mostly on you.
That doesn’t mean that every moment you spend with your head in the clouds is good, though. Many of these studies are referring to what’s known as positive constructive daydreaming, which is a very specific form of losing yourself in your own thoughts. Positive constructive daydreaming, according to a 2011 review, has four functions: It helps us plan for the future, for one, and it increases creativity. But it also assists with “attentional cycling” — that is, it allows us to “rotate through different information streams.” Finally, the short breaks from tasks it provides ultimately serves to increase productivity.
Positive constructive daydreaming is a little different from “aimless” daydreaming (also known as mind-wandering), because it’s intentional. “The imagination network in the brain — the “default mode network” — can interact with the executive attention network to make daydreaming more focused and productive,” Kaufman said. We can drive positive constructive daydreaming in specific ways, and, as the name suggests, in positive ways.
And yet daydreams, of course, can vary in tone and content. The influential cognitive psychologist Jerome Singer suggested that daydreams can differ in how vivid they are, how enjoyable they are, how many are preoccupied with anxiety or fear, and how much the daydream impacts the person experiencing it. If our anxieties are writ large in our daydreams, we may not be experiencing some of their more positive benefits; if we’re depressed, self-directed thoughts can become destructive.
So how do you ensure that your daydreaming is positive and constructive? It may seem counterintuitive, but being mindful of daydreaming (which in itself is often mindless) can help you stay on track. “Mindfulness meditation is good for helping you to consciously choose which mind wandering you want to keep in your head, and which ones are not being helpful for you,” Kaufman said. Taking time to actively direct your daydreams and visualize goals, no matter how fantastical they may seem, is another good way to do this.
But this isn’t to say that you should reframe daydreaming as a “productive” activity, one aimed at particular or favorable outcomes. “Positive constructive daydreaming need not have a goal,” Kaufman agrees. Whether you do it mindfully or mindlessly, it’s worth spending a little time each day imagining the world beyond the present moment.