Have you ever heard someone call another person a daydreamer? In such a context, being called a daydreamer is probably not a flattering characterization. Rather, the person may be viewed as non-productive, having thoughts that are fanciful and not necessarily reality-based, or escaping from the “here and now.” Calling someone a daydreamer may well be an attempt to insult the person and diminish her value.
Yet people who intend to use the term pejoratively are probably not aware or don’t care about the benefits derived from daydreaming. Daydreaming is a common and normal mental activity where “attention is focused inward and away from external stimuli in the present environment” (Williams, 2016, p. 131). It occurs typically when a person is not involved in an activity that requires attention so that the mind is free to wander. Daydreaming is prompted frequently by environmental cues such as certain visual images, smells, sounds, or tastes that induce memories. Experiencing these external cues can stimulate nostalgic daydreams (Poerio, Totterdell, Emerson, & Miles, 2016).
Daydreaming, however, is not just a “trip down memory lane.” Daydreaming can be used to improve an individual’s life in terms of fulfilling needs, hopes, and goals, as well helping the individual gain better insight with respect to oneself and behavior with others. A person can mentally rehearse how he will act in future situations. Not only can behavior be addressed, but emotional reactions can be uncovered and explored. Thus, daydreaming can be viewed as a preparatory tool in how to handle, both behaviorally and emotionally, upcoming situations.
Mostly, the content of daydreams tends to be social. That is, the dreams involve interactions that the individual has with others. Daydreams can help in adjusting to social situations and challenges. Again, by thinking about a social situation, one can work through how she would respond; thus, it can be helpful for the time when the actual event arises. It has also been found that social daydreaming can help reduce loneliness if the daydreams are about people close to the individual. In such instances, daydreaming can make the person feel less lonely and more connected (Poerio et al., 2016). Consequently, social daydreaming can be an effective approach in helping people respond to social challenges.
Eldridge (2016) has written about imagined interactions (e.g., a person mentally imagines having a conversation with another where both the individual and the other talk). They are similar to daydreams; however, imagined interactions require that the other individual is indeed someone the person knows and is likely to have an interaction with, not some fantastical encounter. The functions of imagined interactions serve to:
- maintain relationships
- deal with past conflicts
- rehearse what the individual, as well as the other person, would say while interacting
- release emotions that the individual has held
- provide an opportunity for communication that is not otherwise available (e.g., the other person is dead)
By engaging in mental imagery, the individual can compose dialogue and gain more, albeit not actual, “experience.” By mentally practicing social interactions, an increasing sense of mastery and lessened anxiety can occur. Those who are open to experiences and tend to be neurotic are most likely to practice imagined imagery.
Yet daydreaming can also have negative effects. That is, if one is already experiencing negative emotions (such as poor self-esteem, fear of failure, high anxiety), the person’s daydreams may focus on issues that reinforce the negativity. For instance, if Peter is having difficulty understanding what his professor is talking about in his physics class and is afraid that he may fail the course, Peter may have daydreams that reflect and reinforce his worrisome state of mind. Thus, daydreaming for Peter may not be helpful in alleviating his fears and anxiety.
People also daydream just to fill the time when they are bored or when they cannot maintain attention and are easily distracted. In this sense, daydreaming has no real positive or negative effect, unless it is interfering with one’s functioning.
Klinger and colleagues (Klinger, Murphy, Ostrem, & Stark-Wroblewski, 2005) found that approximately one-fourth of daydreams are not wholly realistic but are partly fanciful or have dream-like features. Generally, however, the content of one’s daydreams reflects the individual’s innermost thoughts and reveals quite a lot about the person. How people respond in their daydreams is usually how they respond in real life. Thus, daydreams tend to reflect one’s personality and her current emotional state. It’s not surprising then that when people are feeling poor self-esteem or are depressed, they may be reluctant to disclose their daydreams for fear of rejection or being exploited by others.
The reluctance that many have in revealing their daydreams to people can have negative consequences. It may limit the degree of intimacy with significant others. Moreover, avoiding any discussion of daydreams may perpetuate the belief that only the individual has these thoughts and thus lead to self-criticism. Lack of disclosure prevents the individual from discovering that his daydreams are normal and can be experienced by others.
In sum, daydreams can have both negative and positive aspects. If the daydreams reinforce negative affect, the individual may not be able to surmount the challenges of overcoming distressing emotions. On the other hand, positive daydreaming can enhance one’s social relationships, self-esteem, and confidence. Daydreams have the power to address effectively fears and concerns as well as provide the individual a respite from the stresses in daily living. However, too much daydreaming or daydreaming at inappropriate times can be a hindrance.
Eldridge, J. H. (2016). Imagined interaction frequency and the five-factor model of personality. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 35, 351–358. doi/abs/10.1177/0276236616636215
Klinger, E., Murphy, M. D., Ostrem, J. L., & Stark-Wroblewski, K. (2004-2005). Disclosing daydreams versus real experiences: Attitudes, emotional reactions, and personality correlates. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 24, 101-138. doi.org/10.2190/FTRA-31CH-6A2W-HV3N
Poerio, G. L., Totterdell, P., Emerson, L-M., & Miles, E. (2016). Social daydreaming and adjustment: An experience-sampling study of socio-emotional adaptation during a life transition. Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 1-14. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00013