When participants were asked about topics that were fun AND meaningful, they thought about it more than when they could think about what they wanted. Photo credit: Shannon Alexander / University of Florida

Did you dream as a child, maybe even get in trouble for it? If you find it harder to get comfortably lost in your thoughts these days, you are not alone.

“This is part of our cognitive toolkit that is underdeveloped, and it’s kind of sad,” said Erin Westgate, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of Florida.

The ability to think for pleasure is important and you can do better, Westgate says. The first step is to realize that daydreaming is surprisingly easy, even though it may look simple.

“You have to be the actor, director, screenwriter and audience of a mental achievement,” she said. “Even though it looks like you’re not doing anything, it’s cognitively taxing.”

Another obstacle that Westgate’s research has uncovered: We don’t intuitively understand how to think pleasant thoughts.

“We’re pretty clueless,” she said. “We don’t seem to know what to think about in order to have a positive experience.”

Westgate wants to help people regain that daydream state, which can increase wellbeing and even pain tolerance. In a study published today in Emotion magazine, Westgate and colleagues Timothy Wilson, Nicholas Buttrick, and Rémy Furrer of the University of Virginia, and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University instructed participants to think meaningful thoughts. Westgate reckoned this would lead the thinkers to a rewarding experience, but they actually found it less enjoyable than their unguided thoughts.

“I was so confused,” she said. Then she took a look at the issues the participants were thinking about.

“It was heavy stuff. It didn’t seem to occur to them that they could use the time to enjoy their own thoughts.”

When stimulated for fun rather than meaning, we tend to use superficial pleasures like eating ice cream that don’t cause the same itchiness as pleasant but also meaningful thoughts. When Westgate provided attendees with a list of examples that were both enjoyable and meaningful, they liked to think 50% more than when told to think about what they wanted. You can use this knowledge in your everyday life by engaging with topics that are worth daydreaming about, like a pleasant memory, future accomplishments, or an event that you look forward to, she says.

Daydreaming can be an antidote to boredom, which Westgate’s work demonstrated and can lead people to bully, troll, and display sadistic behavior. In one experiment, participants decided to kill insects with a coffee grinder to relieve their boredom. (The bugs weren’t actually hurt, but the participants didn’t know that.) In another study, 67% of men and 25% of women preferred electrocuting themselves to being alone with their thoughts. Sure, our devices provide an endless stream of distraction, but in certain situations electronic entertainment is unavailable or unsafe. (“When you’re at a traffic light, you’d rather think about a nice picnic than pick up your phone,” Westgate said.)

Aside from its ability to fight boredom, thinking for pleasure can be its own reward. “It’s something that sets us apart. It defines our humanity. It enables us to imagine new realities,” Westgate said. “But this way of thinking takes practice.”

Here’s how to do it.

  • Trust that it is possible to have a good experience by providing your brain with topics that you find pleasant. “This is something we can all do, if you have the concept. We give these instructions to 4- and 5-year-olds and it makes sense to them.”
  • That said, “This is hard for everyone. There’s no good evidence that some kinds of people are just better thinkers. I’m the worst person in the world: I’d definitely rather be electrocuted,” Westgate said. “But knowing why it can be difficult and what makes it easier really makes a difference. The encouraging part is that we can all get better.”
  • Don’t confuse planning matters with pleasure. “People say they like to plan, but when we test it, they don’t.”
  • Pick the right time to give it a try. Research shows that we are most likely to dream when our mind is minimally occupied with something else, like showering or brushing our teeth. “Next time you go, try instead of pulling out your phone,” Westgate says.

Improving your daydreaming ability will provide you with a source of joyful thoughts during times of stress, Westgate says.

“What we feel depends on what we think. Thinking for pleasure can be a powerful tool in shaping our emotions.”

Research shows that doing something is better for most people than being alone with their thoughts

More information:
Erin C. Westgate et al., What Makes Thinking Pleasant for Pleasure ?, Emotion (2021). DOI: 10.1037 / emo0000941 Provided by the University of Florida

Quote: Why We Are So Bad At Daydreaming And How To Fix It (2021 March 4th), accessed March 4, 2021 from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2021-03-bad-daydreaming.html

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