Remember being at church or a school assembly as a kid and letting your mind wander, and then all of a sudden, the boring event was over? Daydreaming took us out of the place we were physically located and brought us basically anywhere else, and made the time go (or at least feel like it went) faster.
But as adults, when our brain gets a break (or even when it doesn’t), our thoughts tend to turn negative — worrying about finances, societal injustices, family issues, living through a global pandemic — you name it. As Dr. Erin Westgate, a psychology professor at the University of Florida explains, daydreaming “is part of our cognitive toolkit that’s underdeveloped, and it’s kind of sad.”
Here’s how to relearn how to daydream as a strategy to ward off boredom.
Why is daydreaming so hard?
Daydreaming — or deliberately thinking for pleasure and/or escapism — is a skill that is far more demanding than most people realise. “You have to be the actor, director, screenwriter and audience of a mental performance,” Westgate says in a statement on her recent research at the University of Florida. “Even though it looks like you’re doing nothing, it’s cognitively taxing.”
Plus, we don’t intuitively know how to think pleasant thoughts. “We’re fairly clueless,” she adds. “We don’t seem to know what to think about to have a positive experience.”
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How to get better at daydreaming
In recent research published in the journal Emotion (co-authored with Timothy Wilson, Nicholas Buttrick and Rémy Furrer of the University of Virginia and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University) Westgate and her colleagues found that daydreaming is “an antidote to boredom,” but people need a little help getting there.
Here’s how to hone the skill, according to the researchers:
- Trust that it’s possible to have a good experience if you prime your brain with topics you’ll find pleasant. “This is something all of us can do once you have the concept. We give 4- and 5-year-olds these instructions, and it makes sense to them.”
- That said, “This is hard for everybody. There’s no good evidence that some types of people are simply better thinkers. I’m the world’s worst person at this: I would definitely rather have the electric shock,” Westgate said. “But knowing why it can be hard and what makes it easier really makes a difference. The encouraging part is we can all get better.”
- Don’t confuse planning things with thinking for pleasure. “People say they enjoy planning, but when we test it, they do not.”
- Choose the right time to try. Research shows we’re most likely to daydream when our minds are minimally occupied with something else, like showering or brushing our teeth. “The next time you’re walking, instead of pulling out your phone, try it,” Westgate says.
The idea here is to come up with a mental playlist of pleasant thoughts you can turn to the next time you’re bored, instead of reaching for your phone.