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Adults are not good at daydreaming, but we should be

Daydreaming can be a powerful way to reshape our emotions, but first we must learn how to do it, according to new research from the University of Florida. Study lead author Dr. Erin Westgate wants to help people recapture their daydream state, which can boost mental and physical health and even pain tolerance. 

“When left to their own devices, people could choose to enjoy their own thoughts. But recent work suggests they do not,” wrote the researchers. “When given the freedom, people do not spontaneously choose to think for pleasure, and when directed to do so, struggle to concentrate successfully.”

Dr. Westgate said that the ability to think for pleasure is important, and you can get better at it. “This is part of our cognitive toolkit that’s underdeveloped, and it’s kind of sad.”

As you build your ability to daydream, you will have a source of enjoyable thoughts at your disposal during stressful times, explained Dr. Westgate. The first step in becoming a better daydreamer is to recognize that while it may seem easy, daydreaming is surprisingly demanding.

“You have to be the actor, director, screenwriter and audience of a mental performance. Even though it looks like you’re doing nothing, it’s cognitively taxing.”

Through her research, Dr. Westgate found that people do not intuitively understand how to think enjoyable thoughts. “We’re fairly clueless. We don’t seem to know what to think about to have a positive experience.”

In collaboration with experts at the University of Virginia and Harvard University, Dr. Westgate analyzed participants who were instructed to think meaningful thoughts. It was assumed that this task would lead to a rewarding experience, but the volunteers reported that they actually found it less enjoyable than their unguided thoughts.

The study participants shared what they had been thinking about, and it came as a surprise to the researchers. “It was heavy stuff. It didn’t seem to occur to them that they could use the time to enjoy their own thoughts,” said Dr. Westgate.

When the volunteers were provided with a list of things to think about that were both pleasant and meaningful, they enjoyed the task 50 percent more than when they were instructed to think about whatever they wanted. 

According to Dr. Westgate, you can use this activity in everyday life by prompting yourself with topics you would find rewarding to daydream about, like an event you are looking forward to, a pleasant memory, or a future accomplishment.

Thinking for pleasure can help to fight boredom, but it can also be its own reward. “It’s something that sets us apart. It defines our humanity. It allows us to imagine new realities. But that kind of thinking requires practice.”

Previous research shows that we are most likely to daydream when our minds are minimally occupied with something else, like when we are showering or brushing our teeth. 

“The next time you’re walking, instead of pulling out your phone, try it,” said Dr. Westgate. “What we feel is a function of what we think. Thinking for pleasure can be a powerful tool to shape our emotions.”

The study is published in the journal Emotion.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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