Illustration: Ashley Siebels
Looking out my office window, I’ll stare at the boats moving slowly against the water, thinking about how I’m going to write this story. I’m visualizing myself crossing a finish line where accolades and friends await me, cheering the results. I indulge in that fantasy because it lets my mind escape the blank page before me and inhabit a fantasy world of personal success.
I digress. What had me thinking about all this is a new study on daydreaming that says letting your mind wander can be a positive activity that can spark new ideas and help you think through problems.
Daydreaming makes us more controlled in our everyday lives
University of North Carolina Greensboro psychologist Michael Kane found this out by observing the daydreams of 274 undergraduates at UNC-Greensboro.
For a week, Kane’s researchers asked these college students about their daydreams in a lab setting and outside of it. They were testing the contents of our daydreams and if they affected our ability to executive function, or remember things despite distractions.
The researchers found that in the controlled lab setting, the students who were “zoning out” were more neurotic.
But out in the real world, these college daydreamers showed better executive functioning skills and were able to focus when the context called for it. Moreover, outside of the lab setting, the researchers found that daydreamers who let their mind wander in their daily lives were more open to different experiences.
That sounds vague, but it’s a secret skill that predicts someone’s future: openness to experience has been shown to be the strongest personality predictor of creative success.
A wandering mind helps one’s mindfulness too. Daniel Goleman’s book Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence has also linked daydreaming to positive self-reflection and the ability to incubate new ideas without judgment.
Here’s how to do this healthily
We’re all daydreamers. A 2010 study found that almost half of us do it.
But daydreaming has long been a stigmatized activity. Think of the words associated with it like airhead, ditz and flake. Or think of stories like Amélie or The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, in which daydreaming is seen as a fanciful and ridiculous distraction from participating in the real world. German even has a word for the daydreamer who always has his head in the clouds and can’t be relied on for practical purposes: the luftmensch.
Author Scott Barry Kaufman calls this “poor attention control daydreaming,” which means the daydreamer cannot focus on “either the external environment or an ongoing train of thought.” There’s also a kind of daydreaming in which we picture catastrophic or high-stress scenarios; needless to say, you don’t want to do that kind.
But Kaufman says we should strive for “positive-constructive daydreaming,” which means showing an “openness to experience” that reflects a drive to “explore ideas, imagination, feelings, and sensations.”
To get that kind of daydream — and its attendant success — think of the daydream as “autobiographical planning,” Kaufman has said.
Specifically, picture “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.” (Yes, much like my dreams of glory upon finishing this article).
So raise a glass to the airheads. Under the right contexts, leaving your head in the clouds is a way to healthily explore the success you could one day be. Just remember to put it into action.