Did you daydream as a kid, maybe even get in trouble for it? If you find it harder to be pleasantly lost in your thoughts these days, you’re not alone.
“This is part of our cognitive toolkit that’s underdeveloped, and it’s kind of sad,” said Erin Westgate, Ph.D., a University of Florida psychology professor. The ability to think for pleasure is important, and you can get better at it, Westgate says. The first step is recognizing that while it might look easy, daydreaming is surprisingly demanding. “You have to be the actor, director, screenwriter and audience of a mental performance,” she said. “Even though it looks like you’re doing nothing, it’s cognitively taxing.“ Another obstacle revealed by Westgate’s research: We don’t intuitively understand how to think enjoyable thoughts. “We’re fairly clueless,” she said. “We don’t seem to know what to think about to have a positive experience.“
Westgate wants to help people recapture that daydream state, which may boost wellness and even pain tolerance. When we’re nudged to think for fun instead of meaning, we tend to default to superficial pleasures like eating ice cream, which don’t scratch the same itch as thoughts that are pleasant but also meaningful. But when Westgate provided participants with a list of examples that were both pleasant and meaningful, they enjoyed thinking 50% more than when they were instructed to think about whatever they wanted. That’s knowledge you can harness in your everyday life by prompting yourself with topics you’d find rewarding to daydream about, like a pleasant memory, future accomplishment, or an event you’re looking forward to, she says.
Daydreaming can be an antidote to boredom, which Westgate’s work has shown can induce people to bully, troll and show sadistic behavior. Aside from its boredom-fighting abilities, thinking for pleasure can be its own reward. “It’s something that sets us apart. It defines our humanity. It allows us to imagine new realities,” Westgate said. “But that kind of thinking requires practice.“
Source: Science Daily