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Episode 196: Daydreaming

People often frown upon daydreaming as being unproductive yet at the same time many others suggest that it improves creativity. Why the dichotomy?
I think this is a cultural problem more than anything. Because we seem to live in a culture that values productivity and immediate results rather than valuing the development of the skills needed to work out how to do it in the first place.

But daydreaming is a double edged sword. At it's best it can help you to be more creative and come up with ideas to help you sort out your garden. But at worst it can stop you from sorting out your garden because you've spend 10 minutes staring out of the window wondering about the difference between a raisin and a sultana.

So there are 2 types of daydreaming, we have intentional mind-wandering, and then we have what we'd probably call "zoning out." And it's zoning out that's the problem, because it stops us from being present.
Zoning out can stop us from sorting out the garden but also stop you from enjoying the music you're listening to, or the film you paid good money to watch. It can mean you miss something wonderful that's right in front of you because your head was still stuck at work or in the past or in the future. And it's really easy to slip into that frame of mind.

A few years ago psychology researcher Matt Killingsworth looked into what we actually do when we mind-wander. After all we might not be able to change our reality right in front of us, but we can go anywhere in our minds. Amongst other things Matt wanted to know what happens in our mind when we're doing something that we don't like doing.
So he designed an iPhone App that messaged participants at random times throughout the day and asked them 3 questions.

How do you feel?
What are you doing?
Are you thinking about something other than what you’re currently doing?

By monitoring how people’s happiness levels goes up and down over the course of the day we can try to understand how those ups and downs relate to things like what people are doing, who they’re with and what they’re thinking about.
He got hundreds of thousands of people taking part and the answers that came back were really quite revealing. It turns out that with only 1 single exception, there isn't any activity that people didn't wander away from in their minds less than 30% of the time.
Brushing their teeth and having a shower had the most mind-wandering with 65% of the time. Working was 50% wandering. 40% of the time Exercising produced mind-wandering.
Nothing got below 30% except having sex, which was only 10% of the time.

What the research also showed is that we are substantially unhappier when our mind is wandering than when it's not. Which is a bit of a shame when you see how much we do it. Now you might look at this and say, “Ok, on average people are less happy when they’re mind-wandering, but surely when their minds are straying away from something that wasn’t very enjoyable to begin with, at least then mind-wandering will be beneficial for happiness.” But you'd be wrong. People are less happy when they’re mind-wandering no matter what they’re doing even if it's something they don't enjoy. A boring reality is still better than our internal thoughts it seems.

Why do we do it if it so often makes us feel worse?
I think a big part of the reason is that when our minds wander, we often think about unpleasant things: our worries, our anxieties, our regrets. And these negative thoughts have a negative influence on our happiness levels.
The lesson here isn't that we should stop mind-wandering though. In fact our ability to revisit the past and imagine the future is really quite a useful human evolutionary bonus. So some degree of mind-wandering is probably inevitable. But it does seem to suggest that mind-wandering less often could substantially improve the quality of our lives.
If we learn to fully engage in the present, we may be able to cope more effectively with the bad moments and draw even more enjoyment from the good ones. Something that Buddhists and years of meditation traditions have been telling us. That we need to be "in the now."

But it needs to be done properly. If you're stuck in a traffic jam it's probably great to wander off in your mind to somewhere else. But only providing you go to somewhere pleasant. If you go to your worries, your fears, your anxieties then it's going to ruin the chance to enjoy some music on the radio or learn something new by listening to a Podcast.

Frustratingly, research also shows us that mind-wandering by accidentally zoning out has actually been linked to creativity.
Our ability to let go of the present moment can actually be really good for us. And this is why we have to say that there are no specific rules to follow to make a happy brain. You do what works for you and your life.
If you're an Author, an Architect, a Handbag Designer then you might have to mind-wander in the shower a little, you might have to stare out of the window and lose track of time. Interestingly though, it's not during the mind-wandering that we come up with creative ideas. What it does is strengthen our ability to think outside the box and come up with new ideas afterwards.
It's as though mind-wandering is an unconscious incubation period for the things we've been previously been thinking about that then makes it easier afterwards to access our mental resources.

I do wonder if that's why meditation and hypnosis has so many positive influences on people's lives. Often someone will go into therapy to help with their fear of needles and end up leaving their spouse or quitting their job three quarters of the way through the treatment plan.
In learning to mind-wander in a healthy way they've inadvertently learned how to trust themselves and their decisions. It's given the more optimism and positive expectation.