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W2C: How Intentional Daydreaming Builds Creativity

April 12, 2022 by Britt Fulmer

W2C: Daydreaming and Well-being: How Intentional Daydreaming Builds Creativity

Neil Gaiman, the bestselling author of American Gods, once said, “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.” 

And, he’s got a point. 

Daydreaming Across Professions

Daydreaming is an unremarkably normal event that occurs dozens of times throughout the day. It’s a human experience. But not all daydreams are created equal. According to researchers, there are three distinct types of daydreaming.

  • Positive-Constructive Daydreaming: wishful and useful imagery
  • Guilty-Dysphoric Daydreaming: anxious or obsessive fantasies
  • Poor Attentional Control: inability to concentrate

Daydreaming and Well-being: How Intentional Daydreaming Builds Creativity

Not surprisingly, only one of those daydreaming styles is adaptive. Positive-Constructive Daydreaming is more intentional, enabling the dreamer to daydream about creative solutions to complex problems, develop plans for upcoming challenges, or simply use the time to play with the creative imagination. These things are connected to creative thought, which contributes to well-being. 

Writers tend to be natural daydreamers. They can tap into the wellsprings of their minds to create dimensions and worlds that only exist in their thoughts. The same can be said for artists and musicians. Through daydreaming, an artist can visualize their final product; a musician can hear how every chord moves together to create one larger piece. 

In professions that are not seen as “traditional” in terms of creativity, daydreaming is discouraged. In these roles, the key to success is focus. However, research shows that daydreaming enhances one’s ability to tap into creative problem-solving skills through idea incubation. Ideas need time to simmer before they are ready to implement in real-time. Daydreaming provides the perfect place for ideas to grow legs. 

The Benefits of Daydreaming

When daydreaming comes at an inopportune moment, such as while studying for an exam or working on an important project for your job, it can be problematic. Even if daydreaming is helpful, daydreaming when our attention is required elsewhere is widely considered poor attentional control. 

However, Positive-Constructive Daydreaming, or daydreaming that’s done intentionally, comes with a slew of benefits. First, it’s highly correlated with personality characteristics such as openness to experience, the ability to tap into one’s curiosity and sensitivity easily, and an eagerness to explore ideas and emotions. These ingredients are essential to creative problem-solving, executive functioning, and working memory

Of the time we spend daydreaming, we spend a large percentage of it thinking about the future. This is something researchers have coined autobiographical planning. It’s our ability to imagine a future state and assess our emotions and reactions to what our brains see. This mental simulation can help us think about our present lives from the perspective of a future self. 

For example, you might think of yourself ten years in the future, having all the knowledge and insight that comes with ten years of experience. Then, you might ask your future self how they would handle a particular problem or challenge you might be facing in your current life. This fresh perspective often helps people develop insights and potential solutions to everyday problems. 

Our brain’s default mode network is alight when we are in a state of mindful daydreaming and future planning. This network is known to enhance our creative thinking by enabling us to connect remotely associated ideas, which tends to be more challenging when we are hyperfocused on a task or activity. By allowing our minds to wander, we actually enhance our brain’s ability to connect ideas and make them more actionable. 

In addition to these benefits, Daniel Goleman highlights a few additional noteworthy benefits, including self-reflection, adapting to and navigating complicated social situations, and simple rejuvenation. 

How to Daydream

As children, we were often scolded for not paying attention. As we got older, our parents and teachers would tell us to “keep our eyes on the prize,” a way of telling us to keep our foot on the gas pedal. But our problems change as we get older. Instead of deciding which juice box we want mom to pack in our lunch, we’re deciding if we should start a family or get married. These decisions are huge and have lasting implications once a decision has been made. 

This is where daydreaming may provide some benefits. That said, daydreaming, like meditation, is a skill. While you’re everyday, run-of-the-mill daydreaming might seem simple, intentional, and targeted daydreaming involves more practice. 

Psychology professor and researcher Erin Westgate recommends a few key tips to start your daydreaming practice on the right foot. 

  1. First, tap into your growth mindset and remind yourself that you can learn a new skill. 
  2. Eliminate any unpleasant thoughts. Daydreaming isn’t for to-do lists. 
  3. Prompt yourself to think about a topic from your life that is both meaningful and positive. For example, you might think about the plot of a new story you want to write or decide how you want to approach your new business venture. 
  4. Our brains are best at daydreaming when they are partially engaged. You may have heard a friend or family member say that they get their best ideas in the shower. This is because our brains are on autopilot, allowing them to use their resources to focus on more complex and pressing topics. 

Using these tips, you’ll slowly begin to build your ability to daydream in meaningful and impactful ways. 

Questions to Consider

  • When do you want to practice daydreaming this week? (While you shower? Doing the laundry? Cooking?)
  • How will your daydreams help you stumble on a new insight this week? 
  • What is one thing you hope to get out of a daydreaming practice? 

You might also enjoy: Creative Resilience with Jenni Grover

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