3 Things You Didn’t Know About Daydreaming

If you’re like me, you spend a lot of time thinking about things other than what you’re doing in the present moment. In fact, if you’re like most people, your mind is wandering for almost half of your waking life.

Considering how much time people spend with their minds adrift, researchers have started to get hip to the idea that maybe we can learn something by studying daydreaming. Of course, it’s not an easy topic to learn about because it involves trying to delve into people’s streams of consciousness, but some interesting findings have started to emerge. Here are some of them:

1. There are different kinds of daydreaming

When your mind wanders, you never know where it’s going to end up. Sometimes it heads straight for Happy Town, but just as often it finds itself in neighborhoods it would rather avoid.

A study published in July found that people who are more introspective are more prone to both positive and negative daydreaming, but that these two kinds of daydreaming have very different effects.

What the researchers called “positive-constructive daydreaming” was associated with happiness, personal growth and purpose in life. “Guilty-dysphoric daydreaming,” on the other hand, predicted negative emotions, depressive symptoms and lower psychological wellbeing in general.

2. Some researchers have proposed Maladaptive Daydreaming as a mental health disorder

Daydreaming can be good or bad, but psychologists generally seem to be more interested in what happens when things go wrong than when things go right. No surprise, then, that a new line of research has sprung up around Maladaptive Daydreaming, or daydreaming that causes real problems in people’s lives.

In January, an international team of researchers published the Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale, a survey “designed to gauge abnormal fantasizing.” When they put their questionnaire to the test, they found that people who scored higher were more likely to have a variety of other problems, including obsessive-compulsive thoughts and attention deficits.

Since the Maladaptive Daydreaming Scale was introduced, a flurry of new studies have come out looking at the potential effects of Maladaptive Daydreaming.

For example, a study of 447 people from 45 countries found that compared to normal daydreamers, people with Maladaptive Daydreaming reported more distress from and less control over their daydreams, and more interference in their life. They also reported more obsessive-compulsive, attention deficit, and dissociative symptoms.

A series of in-depth interviews with 21 people who self-identified as having Maladaptive Daydreaming gained some firsthand insight into what life with impairing daydreams is like. The participants talked about having to set aside extended periods of time to play out their elaborate mental fantasies, many of which were about compensating for different aspects of their lives.

None of this is to say that Maladaptive Daydreaming will make an appearance in the next version of the DSM, but research and firsthand accounts seem to agree that when daydreaming goes off the rails, it can become something impairing and destructive.

3. Social daydreaming can help with life transitions

Of course, none of this is to say that daydreaming can’t be a good thing. Just because some daydreaming is maladaptive doesn’t mean a lot of it isn’t adaptive!

In January, psychologists from the United Kingdom published research looking at 103 students transitioning into university life. Because daydreams often have social themes, the participants were asked about their experiences of social daydreams over the course of four weeks.

When the month was up, it turned out that students who engaged in more social daydreaming had coped with the transition to university life significantly better. They were less lonely, felt more socially connected, and reported being more socially adapted. Even among those who hadn’t adapted well socially, more social daydreaming was associated with feeling less emotional inertia.

In other words, daydreaming can be a useful way of coping with life transitions and can even be associated with concrete changes in our lives. Just because daydreaming seems purposeless doesn’t mean it actually is!

What role does daydreaming play in your life? Share below!

Image: FreeImages.com/Sharell Cook


  1. Crow on August 2, 2016 at 11:21 pm

    As a child I day-dreamed all the time. Good day dreams, even great day dreams. It was how I survived an abusive childhood. All my Primary School Report Cards had “Must stop day dreaming” on them. (I would love to write back “Must start noticing abuse”)

    Daydreaming is maybe a kind of guided visualisation wherein we can be as free and a safe as we need to be, where we can be allowed friends and go on explorations and adventures, where someone does love us and want to be around us and where we can talk to an internal imaginary friend that helps us think things through and makes us feel as if we are OK. I don’t know how I would’ve survived without this. I still use guided visualisation as a form of self-soothing and preparation for new circumstances or relationships or activities, rehearsing the pro’s and con’s and possible responses and outcomes. It helps me feel prepared and confident that I have done all I can. However, I also have imaginary conversations with people I am in an actual relationship with and sometimes cannot understand why the real relationship has not “moved on” or changed in the way I thought it had, only to remind myself it was all in my head and the other person is oblivious to all the conversations I thought had happened!!

    I am quite a creative person in both writing and painting and crafts and wonder whether the two are related?

    • Neil Petersen on August 3, 2016 at 1:10 pm

      Thanks for sharing your story. I agree that daydreaming can be a great coping tool. And I absolutely do think that there’s a link between daydreaming and creativity — after all, you can’t daydream if you don’t have an imagination!