You probably have a somewhat negative attitude toward daydreaming. If your caretakers ever criticized you for having your head in the clouds as a child, you might associate letting your mind wander with wasting time.
However, science tells us that visualization can offer a host of benefits. Many of the perks improve your overall well-being. Is daydreaming healthy, and how can you make it more so?
The Benefits of Daydreaming
If you study Olympic athletes, many of them cite visualization as a core component of their training regimen, even though it involves no physical movement. The practice helps because your body follows cues from your brain — which provides a clue as to how daydreaming is healthy. Here are seven benefits you can reap from your wandering mind:
1. It Gives Your Brain a Break
To perform well at any task, you need to focus. However, your brain can only maintain its attention span for so long — it performs at its best when alternating between periods of rest and concentration.
This improvement with breaks occurs because your brain has what’s called a “default mode network.” While some scientists dub this the “do mostly nothing” circuit, this nickname is a misnomer because your brain never rests — as anyone who has ever spent a night counting sheep can attest.
This circuit uses 20% of your body’s energy to integrate new knowledge with existing memories and helps you develop sharper awareness. When you focus, it only takes 5% energy — but your mind won’t let you ignore the need to synthesize by taking you off-task. A few minutes of daydreaming can be just what the doctor ordered.
2. It Can Help You Resolve Conflicts
Have you ever faced a conflict with a micromanaging supervisor or dealt with an argument with your teenager? Daydreaming can help you resolve disputes by letting you visualize the outcomes of various courses of conduct. This action can lead to revelations like how setting a weekly prioritization meeting with your boss can help you tackle a demanding workload.
3. It Can Boost Your Productivity
Think back to the last time you crammed for an exam. You probably didn’t retain the information long after you took the test. That’s because, when long-term memories form, your hippocampus changes the brain’s physical neural wiring to integrate new information into your existing schema. This reformation takes time.
As a result, you can stare at that expense report until Judgment Day and still not see where you missed a zero. However, a five-minute walk break while you daydream about an upcoming road trip may provide adequate time for that “aha” moment — there’s no way the supplies exceeded the advertising costs — to hit you like a recognition bomb.
4. It Encourages Creativity
Creativity occurs when you look at everyday matters in a fresh light. For the connections to happen, your brain needs time to play, free from directives of what it should be doing. Since there are no rules to daydreaming, it’s natural to think outside the proverbial box — with innovative results.
5. It Can Help You Achieve Your Goals
Olympic athletes rely upon visualization and training combined to achieve stellar results. When you picture yourself accomplishing a task, your brain begins sending messages to the muscles responsible for carrying it out. You can’t genuinely feel the pressure of competition until game day, but when you imagine doing well beforehand, you function more effectively when the heat is on.
6. It Helps You Build Empathy
Even if you daydream about Jason Momoa — who hasn’t! — you nevertheless visualize how you would interact. That exercise places you in another person’s shoes momentarily, which is ideal for building empathy. Even revenge daydreams have positive effects when you think through the consequences and realize you’ll feel worse for taking action.
7. It Can Ease Stress and Anxiety
It’s 5:07 p.m. on Friday, but the keynote speaker in your Zoom meeting is still warming up their vocal cords. You could sit and stew over the happy hour beverages you wish you were having. Conversely, you can dial up a pleasant daydream of sipping mai tais on the beach. Throw Jason Momoa in there because why not?
Can Daydreaming Ever Be Unhealthy?
According to Professor Eliezer Somer of the University of Haifa, maladaptive daydreaming refers to visualization so intense that you struggle to handle daily tasks. If you find that you forget to pick up the kids after school because you’re lost in a fantasy world, it’s time to come down to Earth.
Likewise, daydreaming about unrealistic aspirations can make you feel overwhelmed and derail your progress. Fantasizing about fitting into your prom dress again can encourage your weight-loss goals. However, if you have 100 or more pounds to lose, you might do better to visualize a short-term goal, like zipping your jeans without trouble.
Is Daydreaming Healthy? Most of the Time, Yes!
Most of the time, daydreaming is healthy. It relieves stress and helps you imagine a brighter future and the path to attaining it. The next time you lose yourself in the clouds for a few minutes, congratulate yourself on taking care of your brain.