The Benefits of Daydreaming


While I often emphasize the importance of staying in the present moment to reduce stress and anxiety, there are also many benefits to dreaming about your future. Cognitive scientists Erik Mueller and Michael Dyer advocated, back in the 1980s, that daydreaming as an important activity, saying, “Daydreaming is the spontaneous human activity of recalling or imagining personal or vicarious experiences in the past or future. Although sometimes viewed as a useless distraction from the task at hand, we postulate the following important roles of daydreaming in human cognition.” Here’s a list of some benefits of daydreaming:

  • It allows you to try out several different scenarios of a situation

  • Trying out different scenarios in your mind allows you to evaluate potential successes or failures, and helps you to set up planning strategies

  • It allows you to reinterpret past experiences in light of new information – nothing like 20/20 hindsight!

  • It supports creativity by allowing you to think beyond the constraints of your current reality, which can lead to the discovery of new and useful solutions to a problem.

  • It allows you to rehearse for and address various emotional responses to future situations. For example, fear associated with a future event may be reduced if you can work out a successful strategy for your actions that can help alleviate the causes of some of your fears.

  • Ideas generated while daydreaming often provide inspiration for creative work.

However, one of the reasons I advocate for striving to be in the present moment is that us humans have a tendency to let our fears and regrets get the best of us when imagining the future or revisiting the past. That’s why social psychologist Erin Westgate has found that, in order for daydreaming to be productive, people have to focus on ideas that are meaningful and positive. Otherwise, you can just fall into the rumination trap. So, Westgate and her team have come up with some guidelines that can help us daydream more productively:

  • Understand that daydreaming is a skill you can build over time, with practice.

  • Remind yourself that this is not a time to run through your to-do lists.

  • Try it out when you are doing something only mildly engaging, like taking a walk, folding laundry, or taking a shower.

  • Most importantly, tell yourself that daydreaming can feel wonderful if you prompt your thoughts with subjects you enjoy.

In her research studies, Westgate found that the following prompts helped participants achieve more productive and enjoyable daydreams:

  • A specific memory you enjoy thinking about (e.g., first kiss, a family event, an academic or athletic accomplishment)

  • Something in the future you are looking forward to (e.g., an upcoming social occasion, date, meeting with a friend, or vacation)

  • A future accomplishment (e.g., graduation day, wedding day, first day at a great job)

  • An enjoyable fantasy (e.g., imagining that you are a character in a favorite story or movie or that you have super powers)

  • Anything else, as long as it's enjoyable to think about!

So take some time to let your mind wander, using these guidelines, and write down any insights that come to you!