Humans are wired to worry.
We all have our own version of a worrywart—the inner critic, the inner fretter, the inner regretter. We tend to pathologize this inner chatter, but these nagging voices aren’t inherently bad. After all,
- Critical thinking helps us forecast obstacles and outcomes.
- Fretting helps us predict dangers.
- Regretting indicates that we have a moral barometer for decisions that resulted in negative consequences.
Ethan Kross, director of the Emotion & Self Control Laboratory at the University of Michigan, corroborates these points in his book Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why It Matters, and How to Harness It (Crown, 2021). Kross notes that—if harnessed well—this chatter can help guide us toward our desired ends as we navigate life’s challenges.
Yet, when the future seems uncertain, or the demands of our day-to-day life intensify, our brain’s inner chatter can go into hyperdrive. In the face of unknowns, our tendency is to hunker down and push harder—to work and worry even more. But ironically, the harder we work, the less productive we are, and the more likely we are to feel uninspired and lazy in unhealthy ways.
Instead, what if we could disrupt our default negative story spinning and turn our disquiet into expansive daydreaming? What if we could learn to direct the flow of our wandering minds to bolster our resilience in the face of uncertainty?
As research shows, daydreaming is much more than an idle indulgence. It is a vital tool to uplift our spirits, inspire wonder, and recharge our overworked brains.
The creative benefits of daydreaming
For decades, psychologists demonized daydreaming. They studied mind-wandering in terms of how it stunts cognition, impairs task processing, or impedes memory retention. But recent research suggests quite the opposite.
In fact, one study published in Psychological Science showed that taking a break from problem-solving to engage in a monotonous task—one that encouraged mind-wandering—actually improved creativity by as much as 40 percent. Headed up by Benjamin Baird—a research scientist at the Center for Sleep and Consciousness in the School of Medicine and Public Health at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—this study (and many others like it) suggests that daydreaming can actually help your brain retain information, re-focus, gain fresh perspective, and make new connections between ideas. So why don’t we let our minds wander more freely?
Well, there’s a difference between aimless mind wandering and deliberate daydreaming, and though it may seem counterintuitive, positive, constructive daydreaming—as pioneering psychologist Jerome Singer coined it—is hard work.
How to guide your mind-wandering
The average adult spends about 47 percent of their waking life letting their mind wander, according to a study by Matthew Killingworth and Dan Gilbert. The problem is that by default, our brains gravitate toward the negative—toward our past regrets or our future doubts. Even when we’re directed to fantasize, our brains struggle to concentrate. Why? Because it takes a lot more mental effort to create a positive fantasy than to let our minds wander aimlessly, even if we amble into unpleasant territory.
As it turns out, the same network of brain regions—the default mode network—stimulated during daydreaming and mind-wandering also lights up when we’re ruminating and worrying. The trick, then, is to retrain your brain to guide your daydreaming toward ideas that pique your curiosity and advance your most meaningful work.
Easier said than done.
While we can’t control our mind wandering, we can learn to direct the flow of our daydreams. Here are just a few ways we can wander toward more pleasant, impactful, and replenishing thoughts:
1. Disrupt the default.
Next time you find yourself falling down the pit of fret or regret, pause and close your eyes. Try visualizing a stop sign or an outstretched hand. As trite as these symbols may be, they evoke the command better than simply telling yourself, “Don’t go there.”
Once you’ve had time to reset, try envisioning yourself in whatever situation triggered your negative storytelling in the first place. Think through the concrete steps you’ll take to “resolve” the situation. Try imagining the worst-case scenario and, more importantly, the best. You’ll likely realize that you’re more capable of dealing with this obstacle than you gave yourself credit for or that the situation isn’t as dire as you first imagined.
Indulging in these simple mood-boosting visualizations can lift your spirits and remind you that the world is bigger than your worries.
2. Take a wonder walk.
To test how we might practice more wonder in our day-to-day lives, researchers asked a group of healthy older adults (age 60s-80s) to add a 15-minute “awe walk” to their routine. They were advised to walk somewhere new each week and to look at everything—from the leaves in the gutter to the clouds in the sky—as if seeing it for the first time. Within 8 weeks, the “wonder-filled” group reported feeling happier and more upbeat, while the control group often reported spending their walks stressing over work, school, or other responsibilities.
To encourage more positive daydreaming, try adding a wonder walk to your week. Find some green space—or better still, a body of water—and make an effort to consciously observe your surroundings. If troublesome thoughts arise, let them and then allow them to fade. If you can, walk somewhere with a view or vista to get an even more expansive perspective.
3. Rewrite the apocalypse with your own fantasy future.
Many psychologists have observed throughout the pandemic that imagination is key to escaping our banal routines, cultivating hope, and fostering resilience. So tap into yours and allow yourself to chase your wildest “what ifs” with a creative daydreaming practice. You can do so through meditation, journaling, or drawing. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Indulge a future fantasy for yourself, your community, your career. What do you imagine? Write or sketch what comes to mind.
- What’s a strange, unique, or provocative idea you hold that you’re aching to shape, share, and spread? The quirkier, the better, but even if you think it’s not original, you likely have your own angle on it. Storyboard your idea and how it would unfold.
As many of us navigate this awkward transition back to a “new normal,” there are still a lot of unknowns in our near future. After so many months of catastrophizing, it might be prime time to shrug off our cynicism and take advantage of this opportunity to imagine our best futures, alone and together.