“A daydreamer is prepared for most things.” –Joyce Carol Oates
You’re sitting at your desk and staring into space; to the outside observer, you may appear to be in a stupor. But in your mind’s eye, you’re journeying to fantastical scenes and imaginary spaces. Maybe you’re playing out wishful-thinking scenarios; or maybe you have an entire world created in your mind you can escape to at your leisure and check out from the stressors of everyday life for a bit. In meditation, you might call this your sacred space—the place you go to that is all your own, where you feel safe and at peace, unaffected by your physical, temporal surroundings.
It’s amazing where our thoughts can take us when we let them go in the form of what are commonly called daydreams. The ability to mentally wander can provide us with an enticing array of easily accessed outlets for coping with day-to-day ups and downs. Additionally, research has shown that those who daydream with an eye toward the future are known for being prepared to handle a number of unforeseen challenges with creative solutions, as they tend to use “previously acquired knowledge to prepare for events that have not yet happened.” And apparently, when our thoughts are future-focused in content, they are also likely to make us feel better.
Study Examines the Emotional Effects of Mind-Wandering
In a recent study, researchers enlisted 85 male and female German-native speakers from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences database, ranging in age from 21 to 31 years, and examined the effects of the “socio-temporal content” of their thoughts on mood.
The researchers measured the participants’ moods and self-generated thoughts (SGTs) by asking each of them to perform a basic choice reaction time task (CRT) and answer a series of questions pertaining to thought content. They discovered that when their subjects’ mind-wandering took them to memories of the past or to thoughts of others, negative emotional states tended to result, even if the content of these musings was generally positive. In contrast, when trains of thought took participants to “future- and self-related” mental spaces, improvements in mood were observed, even when the thought content was negative.
For example, a romantic love scene with a past partner may feel good as you are reminiscing, but once reality sets in and you’re forced to realize that this probably will not happen in the physical realm, negative feelings such as sadness and disappointment may set in. On the other hand, mentally running through the motions of an impending breakup, although potentially dreaded and dramatic, will often lead to positive feelings once the self-generated daydream scene has played out, perhaps of relief or resolution.
The researchers also observed that thoughts centered on self-reflection and unfulfilled personal goals and ambitions, which have the potential to lead to feelings of dissatisfaction and depression, instead triggered future-related thoughts in the participants. This then allowed them to concoct plans and spin solutions in their minds toward seeing those dreams fulfilled, which naturally made them feel more hopeful and positive.
Ultimately, whether positive or negative in subject matter, daydreaming that focuses on future, self-oriented goals and scenarios has the power to elevate a person’s emotional state and better prepare him or her to handle life’s challenges.
Ruby, F. J. M., Smallwood, J., Engen, H., and Singer, T. (2013, October 23). How self-generated thought shapes mood—the relationship between mind-wandering and mood depends on the socio-temporal content of thoughts. PLoS ONE, 8 (10): e77554. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0077554. Retrieved from http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0077554;jsessionid=047670EBFF4E9454C1AF1CDE3E40FBA6
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