Why is daydreaming so hard in adulthood? Mastering the lost art can benefit the mind

GAINESVILLE, Fla. —  Daydreaming during childhood is inevitable for most wide-eyed kids when it comes to the mundane. It seemed like a natural instinct, particularly while we’re supposed to be paying attention to something important, yet boring. As an adult, however, do you find that it’s much harder to find yourself mired in an enjoyable daydream the way you used to?

According to a recent study, our thoughts are a result of our emotions, which is why some of us might find it more difficult to drift off in them these days. “This is part of our cognitive toolkit that’s underdeveloped, and it’s kind of sad,” explains Erin Westgate, Ph.D., a University of Florida psychology professor, in a statement.

According to her study, daydreaming is harder than it looks. “You have to be the actor, director, screenwriter, and audience of a mental performance. Even though it looks like you’re doing nothing, it’s cognitively taxing,” she says.

Results indicate that our brains have difficulty formulating delightful thoughts. “We’re fairly clueless. We don’t seem to know what to think about to have a positive experience,” explains Westgate.

When prompted with topics that are pleasurable AND meaningful, participants enjoyed thinking more than when they could think about whatever they wanted. (Credit: Shannon Alexander/University of Florida)

Since the daydreaming process is linked to emotions, researchers believe there are emotional benefits in the ability to daydream. Westgate and her team believe the daydream state may help people tolerate pain and even stimulate wellness. They are working to help people regain the ability to daydream.

In the study, participants were asked to think positive, enjoyable thoughts which had meaning to them. The team believed this would help participants enter into a rewarding daydream experience. However, participants reported the process as less enjoyable and preferred guided thoughts.

Westgate was surprised by the outcome. “It was heavy stuff. It didn’t seem to occur to them that they could use the time to enjoy their own thoughts,” she notes.

According to the study, participants thought of superficial things such as enjoying ice cream, rather than enjoyable thoughts which are also meaningful. The participants reported a 50% increase in positive thinking when researchers guided them with a list of topics that fit this mold. Topics such as future goals, anticipated events, and favorite memories were included in the list.

A lack of daydreaming can lead to boredom, which Westgate previously found can cause people to become bullies, and, even take part in violent behaviors. In an earlier study, participants chose to ease their boredom by using a coffee grinder to kill bugs. Another study revealed that a quarter of the female participants and over half of the male participants (67%) would rather shock themselves with electric shock than reflect on their thoughts by themselves.

With today’s advancements in technology, smart devices can easily distract us from our thoughts, however, sometimes we cannot use such devices, especially when they cause unsafe situations. “If you’re at a stoplight, I’d much rather you reflect on a nice picnic you once had than reach for your phone,” says Westgate.

Other than distracting us from boredom, being able to think solely for pleasure can be rewarding. “It’s something that sets us apart. It defines our humanity. It allows us to imagine new realities, however, that kind of thinking requires practice,” explains Westgate.

The first way to master the art of daydreaming is to initiate pleasant topics for the brain to refer to. “This is something all of us can do once you have the concept. We give 4- and 5-year-olds these instructions, and it makes sense to them,” she adds. “Also keep in mind this is hard for everybody. There’s no good evidence that some types of people are simply better thinkers. ‘I’m the world’s worst person at this: I would definitely rather have the electric shock.’ But knowing why it can be hard and what makes it easier really makes a difference. The encouraging part is we can all get better.”

Additionally, the study reveals that although most people reported enjoying planning, when this concept was tested in daydreams, it was not a pleasant event. 

Finally, timing is important to enter a state of daydreaming. According to the study, it is easier for us to daydream while completing simple, mundane tasks such as brushing our teeth or taking a shower. “The next time you’re walking, instead of pulling out your phone, try it,” suggests Westgate. “As you build your ability to daydream, you’ll have a source of enjoyable thoughts at your disposal during stressful times. What we feel is a function of what we think. Thinking for pleasure can be a powerful tool to shape our emotions.

The study is published in the journal Emotion.