A teacher’s comment on my second grade progress report has become a recurring joke in my family: “Stuart is a pleasant child, but he daydreams too much.”
Far from being ashamed of my daydreaming, I am grateful for it.
Daydreaming is a misunderstood pastime. Once considered a dangerous form of idleness, today daydreaming is more often cast as the enemy of productivity — a distraction from the true task at hand. This is probably what my second grade teacher had in mind.
But, for many people, daydreaming is not a distraction at all. It is an essential aspect of their work. In the most obvious cases, novelists, playwrights, and poets build whole worlds out of the gauzy fabric of their daydreams. The same is true of artists, composers, designers, mathematicians, and scientists. Creative achievements often begin as a waking dream. It is no wonder these professions attract introverts and loners — people who are happy working inside their heads for long periods of time.
Unfortunately, in today’s world the venerable art of internal distraction has been crowded out by a blizzard of external distractions. Our computers and phones provide us with so many enticingly clickable things that we spiral through layers of stimulation, quickly losing sight of what we were originally doing. Between these amusements and our actual work, there is hardly a moment left for a good daydream. In addition, the pace of modern life provides fewer natural waiting periods during which daydreams can bubble up. We still ride buses, trains, and cabs; we still wait in lines and walk from place to place. But today many of these periods are spent texting, playing Words With Friends, calling our mothers, or checking Facebook. Accidental moments of uninterrupted aloneness are now quite rare, which means that daydreaming is less common.
Nonetheless, the benefits of daydreaming are still worth the effort. In a daydream, you can commit daring acts of heroism, take vengeance against your enemies, or achieve financial or romantic success. You can be a Hollywood celebrity or the King of Sweden. Or you can simply entertain your own peculiar thoughts. Daydreams are without limits, and because they are entirely private, no one can judge you for the content of your dreams. That’s what makes daydreaming so much fun.
Introverts have a particular affinity for daydreams, and many of them are experts at it. But not every time and place is suited to this activity. Here are some guidelines for successful dreaming.
Some Risks of Daydreaming
Most of the time, daydreaming is entirely safe, but there are a few situations where problems can develop. The brain wave patterns produced in a sleeping dream are very similar to those produced when you are awake, and if you are at all tired and sitting still, a daydream can easily become a sleeping dream. This is why people who daydream with their eyes closed tend to do so only when they are seated or lying down in a safe place.
Operating Heavy Equipment
Daydreaming often happens spontaneously. Suddenly you notice that your attention has moved from updating your department budget to imagining a vacation on the island of Mykonos. Most of the time this is perfectly fine. Your boss’s insistence that you complete your work on time provides enough incentive to pull you back from dancing on the beach. But if your primary activity involves the operation of heavy equipment, daydreaming could have more serious consequences.
Nonetheless, I am of the opinion that the hazards of daydreaming have been greatly exaggerated. It would be difficult to support this claim with hard evidence, but it appears most people are capable of daydreaming safely. Take, for example, the classic case of driving a car. If you are driving in traffic—making turns, stopping at traffic lights, and avoiding other cars—your attention will normally be on the task at hand, and daydreaming is unlikely to occur.
But if you are driving alone on a long strip of superhighway, the demands on your attention are greatly reduced. This is the moment when drivers often turn on music, a podcast, or talk radio. Alternatively, this is a good time to enjoy a quiet daydream. In most cases, this is not a safety concern. Daydreaming is a hands-free activity that is no more risky than listening to the radio and far safer than texting or making a phone call.
The more common problem for the daydreaming traveler is ending up somewhere you didn’t intend to be — driving directly to work when you were supposed to stop at the dry cleaners, or walking into at your neighborhood bar when you meant to go to the drug store. But for many daydreamers these risks are not much of a deterrent. Daydreaming is just too much fun to let getting lost stop you.
Vague Acquaintances and Friends
In general, the social risks of daydreaming are a much more serious problem. The following scenario is typical: You are having a drink with a friend, and for a time your thoughts are occupied with their rambling story of problems at work. You nod and offer an occasional “hmmm,” as appropriate. Then suddenly your mind drifts away to the delicious Reuben sandwich you had for lunch. Without realizing it, you’ve left your friend’s story behind and are now pondering why Russian dressing tastes so good on a Reuben sandwich but is unimaginable on anything else.
The situation worsens when you are shaken from your reverie by an abrupt question from your friend. “Has anything like that ever happened to you?”
Suddenly you’re stuck. You realize you’ve been so preoccupied with the question of whether Russian dressing really comes from Russia that you have lost the thread of their story. You haven’t the faintest idea what your friend has been talking about.
Given this common predicament, there are a limited number of strategies for getting by: The Fake, The Diversion, and The Confession.
The Fake. In this case you pretend to have understood the question and attempt a noncommittal reply.
Friend: “Has anything like that ever happened to you?”
You: (looking thoughtfully down at your drink and slowly shaking your head.) “No. No, I don’t think so.”
In this situation, your answer has to be no, because answering yes requires an explanation. If, on the other hand, your partner’s question is, “What do you think?” your best answer is probably, “I don’t know. Hard to say.” The general rule is to choose a response that ends the discussion without need of further comment. This approach has a reasonable chance of working, except in those cases where your partner knows you well enough to know you actually do have something to say on the subject.
The Diversion. This is a much more elaborate dodge involving two steps. First, you must excuse yourself. For example, you might raise a finger in such a way as to signal a break in the conversation; explain that you need to go to the bathroom; and then get away quickly. The raised finger is an important part of the strategy, because the conversational ball has just been tossed to you. Ideally a raised finger is a nonverbal signal that your partner will interpret as “Hold on. I’ll get right back to you about that, but I need to take a timeout first.”
This pause in the action will give you time to come up with a diversion. Try to stay away as long as possible, because the longer you are gone the more plausible it will be that you have forgotten the topic under discussion.
When you return immediately interject your distraction.
“Oh my god! Guess who I just saw? You’ll never guess. Meredith Cooper. Remember her? From junior year homeroom. She was just going out the door. I wonder whatever happened to her?”
This strategy of claiming to see someone from your shared past — or, alternatively, a minor celebrity — will often permanently derail the conversation. Even when your friend shows the determination to steer you back to the original topic, enough time will have passed during The Diversion to allow you to credibly say you’ve forgotten what you were talking about. Later, once the crisis has passed, if you are concerned that your companion might bump into Meredith Cooper in the near future or have some other way of disconfirming your story, you can say, “At least, I’m pretty sure that was Meredith,” with a twinge of uncertainty in your voice. A clear sign that you’re not sure at all.
The Confession. Both of the previous strategies offer the hope of evasion, but both also involve a least a moderate level of dishonesty. As a result, these approaches may not appeal to people with a strong moral compass. In this case, it may be necessary to employ The Confession.
For example, you might say, “Sorry. I missed that.”
This is a somewhat embarrassing admission, but it avoids the possibility of further worsening your position by heaping dishonesty on lack of attention. Most people would prefer an honestly inattentive friend to an inattentive friend who lies to cover it up. As a result, many daydreamers prefer to swallow their pride and confess.
If properly executed, The Confession allows you to retain a bit of dignity. For example, the phrase “I missed that” leaves the cause of your lapse ambiguous. You might not have heard what was said due to a loud noise off in your direction or you could be on a pain medication that makes it difficult to concentrate.
Of course your friend will recognize that the phrase “Sorry. I missed that” also includes the possibility that you were simply daydreaming, but the vagueness of the response saves face for both of you. You avoid making a full confession — that you were thinking about a Reuben sandwich — and your friend avoids confronting the possibility of being boring. This somewhat abstract form of confession retains a low level of dishonesty but, in my opinion, falls within the bounds of social convention. Not unlike the generally accepted responses to questions like, “Do these pants make me look fat?” or “Do you think I’m beginning to look old?”
Close Friends and Family Members
Although strategies like The Fake, The Diversion, and The Confession are useful in conversation with vague acquaintances or friends, all bets are off in close relationships. Your close friends and relatives know you very well. This is why my second grade teacher’s comment is so humorous to my family. In close relationships, the daydreamer faces two hazards: 1) experience makes it much easier for your partner to detect when you are no longer paying attention and 2) close friends and family tend to be much less understanding about your disappearance from the conversation. The politeness of social convention quickly falls away at home.
At one time or another, every member of my family has confronted me about not paying attention to what they were saying. In a conversation with someone you love, this is a very uncomfortable moment, and a quick apology and complete surrender are the only acceptable responses. You know you’ve been caught, and there is rarely an excuse that will make things better. As a result, daydreaming is not recommended during any conversation, and it is especially dangerous when talking to a close friend or family member.
Of course, avoiding daydreaming during conversation is a tall order for an introvert. By definition, introverts love the world of their own thoughts, and so, even in important social situations, the inner world beckons. The sudden memory of a Reuben sandwich can be the beginning of a dangerous episode.
The Daydreaming Canvas
Once you find a good time and place to daydream, a few tips will help you have a successful outing.
Daydreaming works best when you are in a good mood and free of stress. If you are worried or sad, your thoughts are likely to spiral into pointless rumination rather than pleasant fantasy. In this case, it is better to choose a form of external distraction, such as a book, a movie, or time spent with friends. Later, when a more fertile inner climate returns, the joys of daydreaming will be easier to obtain.
Daydreaming can happen during almost any activity, but some places and postures are better than others. Many people daydream while walking. This can be a particularly pleasant environment if you are actually Out for A Walk, strolling with nowhere in particular go. Walks of this type are designed to be carefree and rich in visual stimulation, and if you are out on your own, a walk is perfect for daydreaming. In contrast, a good daydream is unlikely to present itself while rushing down a crowded Manhattan sidewalk.
Standing alone can be a excellent arrangement for daydreaming. You can conjure up an internal movie while waiting at the bus stop or in line for your morning coffee. As long you are planted in one place and there is no expectation that you make conversation, the standing daydream can be a very satisfying experience.
Finally, both seated and prone postures are conducive to daydreaming, with eyes open or closed.
Vision is perhaps our species’ most dominant sense, and what you do with your eyes has a strong influence on the success of a daydreaming session. In everyday life, objects within arm’s reach are most likely to command your attention, and for the daydreamer, everything within your grasp is a potential distraction from distraction. As a result, no matter where you are, it is easier to daydream if you lift your gaze above the things around you and focus on some distant spot. The farther away the better. This is why daydreamers have such an affinity for windows. I am quite certain that as a second grader I did my best daydreaming while looking out the window.
In addition to facilitating the waking dream state, looking out into the distance provides a kind of social cover. If you are alone, you can, of course, do whatever you like without fear of judgment, but if you are daydreaming in public, what you do with your eyes matters. Obviously, staring at another person is to be avoided. Even in today’s world of selfies and Facebook overexposure, looking at someone in public for more than a fleeting instant can set off the creep alarm. So if you hope to daydream in a bus station or a coffeeshop, it is best to point your gaze away from other people. Pen and pencil, a laptop, or a book can be a useful prop for those who are self-conscious. Looking up from these objects to daydream will be misidentified as pondering something important that has just occurred to you. A normal happening.
It is also a good idea to avoid staring at things that are not usually the object of intense scrutiny. For example, staring at your own open hands for a long period of time — or at a piece of lint you found on your sweater — is going to look weird. The media have made us paranoid about the people we meet in the world. Stranger Danger is everywhere, and irrational fears abound. As a result, the Starbucks customer at your shoulder is likely to be thinking:Could that person be a psychopath teetering on the edge of violent mayhem? To avoid this kind of suspicion it is best not to stare at the wrong thing for too long a time.
Finally, if you are in a crowded, windowless space with no good spot to rest your gaze, closing your eyes is often a good option. In a train station waiting area, the person seated with eyes closed is assumed to be resting or meditating — both of which are non-threatening activities. The only drawback of closing your eyes is the aforementioned risk of falling asleep.
As many committed introverts know, daydreaming is a wonderfully satisfying and potentially useful activity. Now and again, a random, meandering dream can lead to the discovery of a new idea or the solution to a nagging problem, and almost without exception, dreamers return to the realities of life in a better mood than went they left. It is important to follow a few basic rules, but daydreaming is a safe and inexpensive entertainment we all can enjoy.
Stuart Vyse is a psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, which won the William James Book Award of the American Psychological Association, and Going Broke: Why Americans Can’t Hold On To Their Money. His work has appeared in Observer, The Atlantic,The Good Men Project, and Tablet. He writes the “Behavior & Belief” column for Skeptical Inquirer magazine. This article originally appeared on Medium.