When we were growing up, my brother, sister and I regularly played a game we had invented called the “Swiss Machine”, which involved us spinning around for approximately 30 seconds while saying “Swiss! Swiss! Swiss!” and emerging as characters we’d chosen for an adventure in some imaginary landscape.
When the Swiss Machine was on a break we made little houses for dandelion seed heads, which my sister had adorably named “tree stars”.
Though we grew up and inevitably retired the Swiss Machine and our plant pets, my instinct to use imagination as respite from the real world hasn’t faded.
I’m a daydreamer. I actively and passively experience mind-wandering, whether it’s an allotted pre-bedtime daydream about a crush, or glazing over in the garden imagining future experiences and revisiting memories. I find it a calming, sometimes joyful experience.
But, while studies have shown that imaginative play in childhood can be linked to creativity in adulthood, much of the research on daydreaming has typically focused on its negative impacts: from hampering productivity at work to overwhelming mind-wandering episodes that inhibit daily life, known as maladaptive daydreaming.
However, research is beginning to show positive links between daydreaming and a healthy mind.
In January, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology published new research into the first person experience of daydreaming in the workplace.
Although participants expressed guilt about daydreaming or “mind-wandering”, they also expressed positive impacts on mental health and productivity following a daydreaming episode.
“This study complements existing research to show that, in some situations, daydreaming can be helpful,” researcher Kelsey Merlo said.
“People can use daydreams as ‘mini-breaks’ throughout their workday, allowing them to return to their work feeling more refreshed, energised, and productive.”
Given that mindfulness and being present in the moment are very much in vogue, it is no surprise that daydreaming – arguably the antithesis of being present – doesn’t instantly spring to mind when we are considering how to improve our mental health.
“Daydreaming has traditionally been associated with negative connotations, and this may hark back to our days at school when it was essential to pay attention to encode and learn a significant amount of information,” Muireann Irish, associate professor of psychology at the University of Sydney, said.
In 2017, University of Cambridge researchers established a relationship between the default mode network (the brain network associated with daydreaming) and accurately performing tasks on autopilot, and many experts now agree that there can be significant mental health benefits to daydreaming.
There has been research to show mind-wandering indicates higher intellect and creativity, as well as studies that have shown, in simple terms, problem solving can be improved by allowing the mind time to wander.
It is no surprise that daydreaming doesn’t instantly spring to mind when we are considering how to improve our mental health.
“Allowing our minds to wander, free from work demands and constant streams of information, may be just as important as engaging in mindfulness techniques to promote wellbeing,” Associate Professor Irish said.
“Many famous writers and artists report having their ‘eureka’ moments during periods of quiet contemplation. It seems the key to flexible and creative insights is taking time away from the problem at hand and allowing ourselves to daydream.”
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, professor emerita of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, explained that, while there can be negative effects from daydreaming, as long as daydreaming is used to allow your creative mind to wander free, it can only benefit your mental health.
“Imagining your ‘hoped-for’ goals in life and using daydreaming to motivate you to achieve those would have a positive effect on your mental health,” she said.
For me, there are few pleasures greater than spending time indulging in daydreams about my own personal “hoped-for” goal of winning the lotto. In my reveries I assign myself the role of a (non-criminal) Great Expectations style secret benefactor, bestowing properties and all-expenses paid trips abroad upon my family and friends. This positivity and agency could be the key to reaping the rewards of mind-wandering.
“Studies of clinical populations reveal that the content of one’s thoughts may be the crucial factor in determining whether daydreaming is adaptive or maladaptive,” Associate Professor Irish explained.
Merlo acknowledged uncontrolled daydreams, such as obsessive worry or rumination, are bad for mental health, but also said that her study showed that the emotions in a daydream, both positive and negative, can influence how you feel after the daydream has ended.
Though mind-wandering and mindfulness appear polar opposites, Merlo explained that they may not be quite as different as they initially appear.
“How we manage where our mind goes, whether through the strategic use of positive daydreaming or mindfulness, could be what helps us live our happiest lives,” Merlo said.
Like my early adventures in the imaginary Swiss Machine, choosing where we go and who we become in our daydreams – if it’s positive – may just lead healthier minds, and could allow us to feel relaxed and be more creative in our everyday existence. Who doesn’t (day)dream of that?
This piece by Jenny Haward was originally published on ‘The Sydney Morning Herald‘ 15 March 2019.