Daydreaming often gets a bad reputation.

While yes– researchers have associated “lapses of attention” with memory loss and depression, here’s the thing: not all daydreaming is a lapse of attention. Sure, when we need to pay attention to the outside world, it can be helpful to quiet the inner monologue. But much of our lives are spent in solitude, alone with our thoughts, fantasies, dreams, and inner strivings. It’d be quite shocking if daydreaming– an activity that consumes as much as 50% of our waking lives — wasn’t adaptive.

Well, it can be. But context matters. An emerging approach suggests that there are indeed many benefits of wool-gathering, but they depend on other factors such as the current goal, the thought content of daydreams and individual differences. In other words, depending on your momentary goal (paying attention to a boring lecture vs.dreaming up content for your next novel), who you are (neurotic vs. open to your inner experience) and what kind of thoughts enter your mind (ruminative vs. positive), daydreaming can either be disruptive or immensely helpful for achieving our personal goals.

Certainly, many people have recurring, ruminative thoughts that they wish would go away. And mindfulness can help with that. But as it turns out, most people daydream about the future as an attempt to resolve current concerns and uncompleted personal goals. Critically, most of this reverie involves other people.

One study found that the goal commitments of most people are related to social life, involving “love, intimacy and sexual matters” and “friends and acquaintances”. In another study, Raymond Marr and colleagues found that 73% of people reported that other people are “frequently” or “always” part of their daydreams. Only 1% of people reported that others are “never” included in their inner worlds. This is even built into the fundamental machinery of our minds: one summary of 12 neuroimaging studies found that similar brain areas are active when daydreaming as when thinking about other people.

This isn’t an accident of human nature. As the late, great positive psychologist Christopher Peterson noted, “other people matter”. Good social relationships are important for a healthy, happy and meaningful life. The need for social connectedness is a fundamental human drive.

But this raises an intriguing question: does the influence of others on well-being require real people? Can merely imagining others produce the same effects? How do people’s imaginary social worlds contribute to their socio-emotional functioning? Most of our days are spent without social engagement. Even if we do get the chance to chit-chat at work, we are often still separated from our loved ones. If being connected to our loved ones only in our minds can produce positive benefits, this would support the encouragement of daydreaming in society.

Enter a new study, which investigated the impact of social daydreams on momentary feelings. At four random times during the day, participants were asked to report on their most recent social or non-social daydream. Therefore, they looked at naturally occurring daydreams. They also reported on the emotional content of the daydreams and the relationship quality of the person in their daydreams.

They found that everyday daydreams with social content were associated with increases in feelings of love and connection, as well as increases in happiness. The same effects were not found for non-social daydreams. The benefit of daydreaming seemed to be associated with the actual content of the daydreams, not merely an increase in positive emotions. Increases in social connectedness and happiness were still present even after taking into account the emotional content of the daydreams. They also found that daydreaming about close significant others was particularly conductive to well-being. In fact, increases in positive emotions were only seen when the person in the daydream was considered highly central to their lives.

This study extends prior research on the importance of social connectedness in a really important way. We already knew that different forms of social interaction differentially contribute to social feelings, with interactions with close loved ones giving rise to more positive social feelings. What this study suggests is that even just imagining close others can bring out the same feelings of love and connection!

Indeed, daydreaming about close loved ones can be an adaptive emotion regulation strategy to compensate for feelings of social alienation in daily life. As the researchers conclude, “people’s everyday social feelings are shaped by their imaginary, as well as actual, social worlds, and daydreams can be a source of positive other-directed feelings.”

This is consistent with prior research showing that daydreaming about people not close to us predicts greater loneliness, whereas daydreaming about close others predicts greater life satisfaction. This research is also part of a larger body of research suggesting the many positive benefits of daydreaming, from relieving boredom, to a source of comfort in times of distress, to deep learning and creativity, to an emotion-focused coping strategy, to regulating negative emotions about an impending stressful event, to alleviating the distress of recalling a distressing memory.

Not bad for a mental activity often pushed to the margins of society. I think it’s about time we gave daydreaming its due attention!

(C) 2015 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

Note: An obvious limitation of the main study mentioned in this article is that it was correlational, not causal. Therefore, we don’t know for sure whether feelings of social alientation caused people to imagine close others, which in turn caused them to feel happier and more connected with others. Further research should attempt to tease this out.

Image: Janis Litavnieks/iStock/Thinkstock