While daydreaming may seem like an idle waste of time, research shows that some kinds of daydreams can be useful. They help people to explore ideas, envision situations, and get a better sense of their future selves — all of which contribute to success.
History is full of high-achieving daydreamers: Einstein, Newton, and the Bronte sisters all lived much of their lives in their imaginations.
The scientific community is starting to validate its positive effects. A University of California, Santa Barbara, study
found that people who let their minds wander did 41% better on creative thinking tests than others.
Daydreaming, that experience of letting your mind wander into alternative pasts and possible futures, can be both helpful and harmful to your wellbeing in life and success at work. It all depends on the kind of daydreaming you’re doing.
- Poor attention control daydreaming: It’s “characterised by easy distractibility and difficulty concentrating on either the external environment or an ongoing train of thought,” Kaufman says. “People with this style do not report elaborate daydreams and score low in conscientiousness,” the personality trait most often linked to success.
- Guilty-dysphoric daydreaming: It “features unpleasant emotions such as anxiety, guilt, fear of failure, and obsessive, hostile, and aggressive fantasies about others,” Kaufman says. “Such daydreamers are highly neurotic.”
- Positive-constructive daydreaming: It’s “associated with openness to experience and reflecting a drive to explore ideas, imagination, feelings, and sensations,” Kaufman says. Openness to experience, one of the “Big 5” personality traits, is linked with happiness, positive emotions, and creativity.
The way you daydream affects your overall wellbeing: People with the fewest negative daydreams report the lowest levels of depression.
The context matters, too. If you’re conducting open-heart surgery or attending to other attention-demanding tasks, it’s probably best to forgo the daydreaming.
So when can daydreaming be helpful?
Psychologist E. Paul Torrance followed a group of children for 30 years, from elementary school into adulthood. He gathered IQ tests, academic grades, and other indicators of achievement. But the best clue to a child’s achievement as an adult didn’t show up on a midterm — it was how clearly the kids had shaped an image of their adult selves. Daydreaming helps with that visualisation.
Other researchers have found that daydreamers across cultures have a “prospective bias” — when people have the opportunity to daydream, they think about the future and their long-term goals. That bias helps people to plan their lives.
It’s “autobiographical planning,” Kaufman says, “the setting and anticipation of personally relevant future goals and mental simulation of possible future scenarios, including the emotional reactions of others and ourselves in response to the imagined events.”
The results of this show up in the classroom, he continues. When students in one study were given the time to imagine their academic futures, they had better attendance, cared more about succeeding in class, and could better weigh hopeful expectations with feared outcomes.
This is a lot like the research into excitement and anxiety that Alison Wood Brooks has done at Harvard Business School. She found that worrying is simply misspent imagination. When you’re anxiously plotting out what could go wrong, you’re not doing yourself any favours by figuring out what steps you need to take. But when you’re imagining what could go right, you’re exploring possible courses of action, which is incredibly valuable for planning.
Looking at the research, it seems like we need to be better aware of the content of our daydreams.
The worrisome daydreams not only make us feel like crap, they’re not strategically useful. The constructive daydreams, on the other hand, help us to construct our future lives.
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