You’ve gotten your kids logged on for another day of virtual school. You’ve unsuccessfully checked a number of websites in search of coronavirus vaccine appointments for your parents. You’ve answered your urgent work emails and finally have time for a coffee break. As you sit there, you wish you could take a brain break, too, and daydream about something, anything, that would allow you to step off this hamster wheel that has become pandemic life, if only for a few minutes.
Daydreaming. Sounds simple, right? But a growing body of research suggests that intentionally trying to have a pleasant daydream is surprisingly difficult, and consequently, the experience is not always as enjoyable as people may assume.
“We think that on command you should be able to think about whatever you want and you should be able to think about things that are enjoyable,” said Nick Buttrick, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University who has co-written papers on thinking for pleasure over the years. “That doesn’t seem very hard, but thinking is difficult, and one of the key things we’ve learned from doing all of these studies is people need prompts, people need help.”
Still, Buttrick and other experts say that with some guidance and practice you can get better at daydreaming — and that it may be worthwhile to try.
“One thing that’s been hard with the pandemic is that we’ve lost the future, in a sense,” Erin Westgate, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida who has also published research on thinking for pleasure, wrote in an email. “We know that looking forward to good things coming our way in the future is half the pleasure. Losing that is a real loss.”
Instead of looking forward to future events, many people are now worrying about them, Westgate said, asking questions such as, “When will I get to see my family?” or mourning the experiences they’ve been missing out on.
Daydreaming is one way to “restore that sense of anticipation and the pleasure we get from imagining positive futures, without the need for those things to actually happen,” she said. “Because imagination and daydreaming don’t have to be grounded in reality, they offer a potential way to escape, mentally, from what’s happening in the present, or to connect with people we can’t be around right now, in person.”
Neda Gould, a clinical psychologist, agrees that daydreaming could be a handy coping mechanism during the pandemic.
“One could hypothesize that this would help mood when you’re thinking about pleasurable experiences,” said Gould, director of the Mindfulness Program at Johns Hopkins. “When we think about the pandemic and the distress of the pandemic, our mind is caught up not only in negativity, but also the uncertainty of the future. Having this as one additional tool to be able to use can certainly be a useful strategy to help with mood and other issues.”
If you’re in need of an escape, here’s what experts recommend.
Understand why daydreaming is hard
Daydreaming on command is unexpectedly taxing on the brain, Westgate said in a phone interview, no matter a person’s demographics or background.
“You’re essentially the director and screenwriter and actor and audience of this whole sort of mental production,” she said. “That’s a lot to manage. It requires a lot of working memory. It really taxes your ability to play all these simultaneous roles at the same time.”
Directing yourself to think pleasant thoughts seems to be at odds with how people’s brains are naturally hardwired, Gould said. “We’re primed to be aware of negativity and distress.”
Furthermore, instructing your brain to daydream at a particular moment “violates the basic rules of daydreaming,” said Eric Klinger, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota at Morris.
“When there isn’t some urgent task the brain is working on, then the brain just naturally goes into this string of things that are in the person’s life at that time, current concerns kinds of things, and works them over and usually very briefly,” said Klinger, who has researched thought flow and daydreaming. He added in an email: “When someone asks you to daydream, that becomes a task, at least initially, which disrupts the natural flow of consciousness of a brain at ‘rest.’ ”
Westgate noted that people who are left alone with their thoughts typically revert to the paradigm of “thinking is for doing,” focusing on tasks that need to be accomplished rather than using the time to “mentally treat” themselves to more enjoyable thoughts.
“Before doing this kind of research, I didn’t do it in my own life either,” Westgate said of thinking for pleasure. “It didn’t occur to me to do it, just like it didn’t occur to our participants to do it. . . . Even just knowing that it’s an option and trying it moves you a long way forward.”
Preparation and practice are key
In a recently published paper titled “What makes thinking for pleasure pleasurable?” which draws on two small studies involving college students, Westgate, Buttrick and their co-authors found that daydream-inducing thoughts should be both pleasant and meaningful.
“It’s very easy to think about hedonic pleasures, for instance, eating an ice cream cone or something like that, but you can’t really think about that for five minutes,” Westgate said. “Even if you did, it wouldn’t be very meaningful, and it probably wouldn’t actually be that enjoyable.”
So how do you come up with pleasurable yet meaningful thoughts that may lead to good daydreams? According to Buttrick, the secret is preparation.
“Having a plan seems to be the thing that matters the most,” he said, noting that research suggests compiling a go-to list of topics that you would like to think about.
“The less you have to concentrate on doing the editing, the better,” he said.
Westgate said she used to keep index cards on hand with possible ideas but has since started keeping notes on her phone. These days, she enjoys daydreaming about her future garden and scuba diving trips.
Meanwhile, Buttrick said he’s been thinking about plans with family and friends once pandemic life comes to an end, and the two kittens he shares with his partner.
It’s also critical to pick the right time to daydream, Westgate said.
“You need to have the mental resources to be able to do it without distractions that are keeping you from focusing on your thoughts,” she said.
You may, for instance, find it easier to let your thoughts wander to enjoyable subjects while showering or brushing your teeth, Westgate said.
Gould, on the other hand, suggests setting aside some time to actively engage in this type of thinking. “When our attention is divided between two tasks — and, of course, even brushing our teeth and taking a shower has cognitive components to them — then we’re not really doing either task with full engagement.”
Once you find what works for you, experts recommend treating daydreaming like any other skill you’re trying to improve.
“The more we practice, the better we get at it,” Gould said. “If there is some benefit for our mood from practicing this, the more we do it, the easier it will be to call on as a resource or a tool when we’re down.”
Remember daydreaming isn't a 'magic bullet'
Experts say people need to have realistic expectations of the benefits of thinking for pleasure.
“There often isn’t one magic bullet that’s going to fix everything,” Gould said.
Daydreaming should be viewed as a strategy that may help you feel better in the short term, Klinger said. But if your brain is consistently returning to thoughts about certain concerns, a more effective solution may be to take action, he said.
“Until you actually do something about it or change the realities out there, your brain is going to take you back there,” he said.
Still, daydreaming may help make life’s small moments better, Buttrick said.
“Given the choice between having small moments that are not particularly enjoyable or meaningful and having small moments that are enjoyable and meaningful,” he said, “I think most people would probably choose the second if they knew how to do that.”
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