The topic of daydreaming does not get a lot of airtime around the dinner table, but my guess is everyone is secretly wondering what is going on in everyone else’s head.

Wouldn’t that make conversation outrageously more interesting?

“As, I walked to the library today I experienced the authenticity of the old cities in the Arabic world. I learned to speak Arabic in my free time over the next year and then moved there for ten years.

I sat in Algerian restaurants and listened to what the old people were talking about, then I went to the desert and heard what the old world had to say. I breathed Mediterranean air and saw myself in sandals with a dark tan and white smile.”

Not only do we not talk about the lives inside our heads, we don’t seem to know that much about them. I recently went on a daydreaming podcast bender and was stunned at the range of contradictory ideas of if daydreaming is good or bad. There wasn’t even a coherent definition of daydreaming.

What was clear though, is daydreaming is something that should have our attention. We spend over 50% of our time lost in our own little worlds, and depending who you listen to, it is the seed of success or the systemic cause of all unhappiness.

A massive study by Dan Gilbert and Matt Killingsworth  from the University of Harvard (that is responsible for the 50% statistic) found that when people let their mind’s wander they are less happy than when they are focused on a task. This was true regardless of whether the daydream was positive or negative.

On the flip side, every self improvement manual out there applauds and encourages the use of “positive thinking.” Not to mention the amount of creative geniuses who attribute their greatest breakthroughs to an aha moment generated out of random thought.

But, before we can get into whether daydreaming is good or bad, we first need to have a mutual understanding on the definition of daydreaming.

Daydreaming is an altered state of consciousness that occurs when our attention is no longer focused on our external situation. This definition of daydreaming includes everything from planning your day to taking your pet dragon for a spin over the town.

Just because it is an altered state of consciousness, however, doesn’t mean that it is necessarily unconscious. All topics of daydreaming can occur at a conscious, sub-conscious, or unconscious level.

3 Levels of Daydreaming

  1. Visualization

Visualization is a conscious break from reality. This is what most of the advocates of positive thinking are promoting (although dreaming about Hawaiian beaches is positive it doesn’t always fit here). To best understand visualization, it is the easiest if you just give it a try. Imagine being someone else who is looking at you right now and see what they see.

Visualization takes effort and focus. It is not the mind wandering that Gilbert and Killingsworth were studying at Harvard. This is always a positive form of daydreaming.

  1. Fantasy

This can range from full blown Narnia trips to imagining talking to the cute girl in the coffee shop. Fantasy can seem like a visualization, but you are not consciously choosing where you will go. This is the brain in its default network mode and is what a lot of people think when they hear daydreaming.

This is the brain mode where the aha moment occurs. As your brain spins through scenarios it is drawing on information and ideas from all parts of your brain, and this is how random ideas are sprouted.

However, it is also possible to get lost in this dream world. Our brains have a difficult time deciphering between what is real and imaginary, which leads to an obvious problem. Why would we ever chose to be in the real world when we can have anything we want in the imagination?

  1. Rumination

This type of daydreaming is so far off the scale of consciousness that it is impossible to control. A relatively harmless version of it is when you get a song stuck in your head. A not so healthy example would be when the driver next to you flips you the bird and you spend the rest of your day thinking of all the things you should have yelled out your window.

Rumination is a symptom of depression as well as anxiety. This is clearly the worst type of daydreaming. It is a full lack of the ability to focus your attention which Gilbert and Killingsworth discovered to be so essential to happiness.

So, Is Daydreaming Good or Bad?

Daydreaming is far too complicated to totally paint with a good or bad brush. Like most things that take up a lot of our attention and time (sleeping, eating, sex) it is essential for our success, but can easily consume us if we are not careful.

The trick is to monitor your level of conscious control over the daydreams. If you are purposefully engaging and disengaging, you are where you want to be. If you are stuck in a horrible pattern of replanning your day 27 times in a few hours, it may be time for some meditation.

The middle road of fantasizing is where it gets tricky. I personally used to have the problem of being bored with everything and getting lost in fantasy (and then messing up whatever I was doing). I realized that I was actually making my life boring by spending too much time fantasizing about exciting things.

However, since I make a living by using my creative juices, I couldn’t just lock my imagination in a box. So, I began consciously noting when I was daydreaming. I have specific times (going for a walk and eating lunch) when I allow my brain to go nuts, and I have specific times when I am careful to maintain focus (when I wake up, and at work).

Over time it becomes easier to consciously monitor and control your mind. It takes time energy and practise, but it is worth it. If you find it too hard, choose someone you trust, and make it a regular topic around the dinner table!

Greg Kamphuis travels the world and writes about how to make life better for yourself and for the world. His latest project, The Dopamine Challenge, is detour from his usual topic of conscious consumerism The change of pace was necessary for him because he realized that before he can ask anyone to be a conscious consumer, he needed to be conscious himself.”