Daydreaming: Not a Useless Waste of Time
Parents are often worried about their non-focused, 'daydreaming' child, who does not seem to be paying attention much to what the teacher or the parent is asking. In their book Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, Scott Barry Kaufman and Caroly Gregoire dig into creativity in a new way. They argue that daydreaming is a crucial part of the creative process, and for children to thrive as creative beings.
According to a study by Harvard psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Matthew A. Killingsworth, we daydream forty-seven percent of our waking hours. Whenever we are the least bit bored, our minds naturally wander. In those hours of daydreaming we explore associations, we make connections, we search for possibilities.
Kaufman and Gregoire devote an entire chapter of their book to the topic of daydreaming. In fact, they present good scientific evidence that both daydreaming and using solitude for reflection are among the attributes of highly creative people.
In an excerpt from their book, Kaufman and Gregoire point out the many benefits of daydreaming:
Creative thinkers know, despite what their parents and teachers might have told them, that daydreaming is hardly a waste of time. But unfortunately, many students learn to suppress their natural instincts to dream and imagine— instead, they’re taught to fit into a standardized mold and to learn by the book, in a way that may not feel natural and that very well may suppress their innate desire to create. But as two prominent psychologists recently noted, “Not all minds who wander are lost”— in fact, the mind’s wandering is vital to imagination and creative thought*.
Nearly fifty years ago, psychologist Jerome L. Singer established that daydreaming is a normal and indeed widespread aspect of human experience. He found that many people are “happy daydreamers” who enjoy their inner imagery and fantasy*. According to Singer, these daydreamers “simply value and enjoy their private experiences, are willing to risk wasting a certain amount of time on them, but also can apparently use them for effective planning and for self-amusement during periods of monotonous task activity or boredom.”
Singer coined the term positive-constructive daydreaming to describe this type of mind wandering, which he distinguished from poor attention and anxious, obsessive fantasies*. By making these important distinctions, Singer was able to highlight the positive, adaptive role that daydreaming can play in our daily lives, under the right circumstances*. From the beginning of his research, he found evidence that daydreaming, imagination, and fantasy are related to creativity, storytelling, and even the ability to delay gratification*.
Of course, mind wandering can be costly when it comes at the wrong time, especially in regard to things like reading comprehension, sustained attention, memory, and academic performance*. The inability to control your attention when the task at hand requires it often leads to frustration, just as the tendency to get wrapped up in distracting negative thoughts can lead to unhappiness. But when we consider the fact that most of our important lifegoals lie far into the future, it’s easier to see how daydreaming might be beneficial. When our inner monologues are directed toward and measured against goals, aspirations, and dreams that are personally meaningful, the benefits of daydreaming become much more clear*.
Over the past decade, scientists have employed newer methodologies to investigate these potential benefits. In a review of the latest science of daydreaming, Scott and colleague Rebecca McMillan noted that mind wandering offers very personal rewards, including creative incubation, self-awareness, future-planning, reflection on the meaning of one’s experiences, and even compassion*.
Many parents worry about children who daydream excessively. And indeed, daydreaming can cause developmental challenges. In 2002, Eli Somer introduced the term maladaptive daydreaming to describe how it can interfere with academic, physical, and interpersonal functioning. When daydreaming inhibits healthy development, affects sleep habits, or increases negative behaviors, parents should seek professional advice.
For the majority of children (and adults) daydreaming is not only a good thing, it’s essential to our flourishing as human beings
Kaufman, S. B. & Gregoire, C. (2015). Wired to create: Unraveling the mysteries of the creative mind.(link is external) New York, NY: Perigee.
Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind.(link is external)Science, 330 (6006), 932.
Somer, Eli. (2002). Maladaptive daydreaming: A qualitative inquiry.(link is external) Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy. 32:2-3, 197-212.