Daydreaming can have loads of benefits—if you do it right

Being alone with your thoughts might sound scary, but it doesn't have to be.
A Muslim woman daydreaming while sitting in front of a laptop outdoors.
A daydreaming break can help you be more productive when you're working or studying. Keira Burton/Pexels

Thanks to our fast-paced, hyper-connected world, it can be hard to remember the last time you enjoyed being alone with your thoughts. Even if you were a prolific daydreamer as a kid, as an adult you likely ward off your thoughts with mobile devices—you might even prefer an electric shock. 

We’re not kidding: In 2014, researchers from the University of Virginia and Harvard University discovered that 67% of male participants and a quarter of female subjects preferred to give themselves electric shocks rather than simply sit and think. Subsequent work by some of the same people has investigated how to make daydreaming easier and more pleasurable, efforts that could help us to reclaim this powerful mental health tool. You have much to gain from mastering daydreaming.

Daydreaming can be really good for you

At times, daydreaming may be considered a negative, unproductive activity. While for some, maladaptive dreaming—marked by vivid or abnormally long daydreams—does interfere with daily life and productivity, a bit of musing has been proven to increase productivity, unleash creativity, and provide an emotional boost. For one, Erin Westgate, a University of Florida psychology professor who worked on that 2014 study, has called thinking for pleasure “a part of our cognitive toolkit” and “a powerful tool to shape our emotions.” 

Allowing our minds to wander can also help us fight boredom and avoid resorting to bullying or sadistic behaviors. A 2020 study by Westgate and researchers from three European universities revealed participants opted to relieve boredom by killing worms with a coffee grinder. Three worms sat in individual cups labeled with their names—cute ones like Toto—while subjects were offered the option to dump the creatures into the machine and shred them with the press of a button. No insects were harmed, but participants were actually unaware the tiny critters would be spared by a special barrier within the grinder.

[Related: What happens in your brain when you daydream]

Daydreaming has its uses at work, too, according to a 2019 study by the Georgia Institute of Technology. One participant even reported making fewer mistakes after a short daydream break. The reason for the growing errors: he had become bored with a repetitive task. The daydreaming session provided the relief he needed to complete his task more effectively. Others told researchers that both their work performance and emotional state improved after a little mind wandering, noting feelings of being “refreshed.” 

Past studies have also shown that thinking for pleasure can increase pain tolerance (people tolerated ice-cold water for longer) and help you fall asleep (insomniacs fell asleep faster). 

The best way to daydream

In her latest study, Westgate and her colleagues found that a basic thinking aid can make daydreaming easier and more enjoyable. These tools were, simply, lists. Researchers asked everyone to come up with eight topics they would enjoy thinking about. The resulting aids either took the form of words projected on a screen, or handwritten index cards. 

[Related: How to digitize your handwritten notes]

Without direction, your mind wanders over to financial woes, to-do lists, and sad events, sucking any fun out of musing. Even with a guide, the researchers found you’re unlikely to reap any rewards unless you’re thinking happy thoughts and having a good time thinking them. While eating ice cream may be an enjoyable thought, for example, thinking of eating Mickey Mouse ice cream with your nephews on their first-ever trip to Disney World would be enjoyable and meaningful. Try to hit both notes when you’re daydreaming.

More daydreaming tips

Once you understand the basic framework of what makes a great daydream, you can boost your skills even further with additional tricks. 

Make your own list 

Have a list with meaningful, happy thoughts ready to go. Try including a happy memory, something you’re looking forward to, a future accomplishment, and even an imaginative, enjoyable fantasy like munching on blue macarons with Grogu (formerly known as Baby Yoda). Skip everyday activities, like errands, and any negative experiences when making your list.

Customize your thinking aid

Index cards worked for study participants, and they may be a good tool for you. You could also try post-it notes for when you’re at your desk or a notepad app on your phone to spark your thoughts on the go. 

Pick a good time to daydream

It’s easier to daydream when we’re brushing our teeth, walking, or sitting in a vehicle. Our minds will wander more easily when we’re on autopilot. As you get more comfortable allowing your mind to roam free, try giving yourself mini daydream breaks while working.

Be patient with yourself

While it may look like merely staring off into space, daydreaming is actually cognitively taxing. Westgate has described the toll as being a one-person actor, director, screenwriter, and audience for your very own mental performance.

Considering how drained we feel after many other cognitively demanding tasks, it’s easy to understand why letting our minds wander becomes something many of us actively avoid. That’s why it’s important to be kind with yourself while you practice, as you should be when learning any other skill. Experience will equip you with a tool chest of happy thoughts for stressful times. 

Before you know it, you’ll look forward to a little time inside your head, and when that email ping brings you back, you’ll be feeling ready to take on the rest of your day.