The latest psychological research suggests daydreams hold the secret of happiness
Raj Persaud and Adrian Furnham
Friday March 20th is ‘International Day of Happiness’ – but amongst all the dubious advice that is inevitably going to pedalled as the secret to happiness – what does psychology and science reveal as the most practical way to achieve greater well-being quickly?
The answer may come as a surprise – the latest research seems to place great store on daydreams.
Daydreaming is not just one of the things we spend more time doing than practically anything else, psychological research just published finds that particular kinds of daydreams are strongly associated with being happier.
But previous studies have also found that the ‘wrong’ sort of daydream is linked with low mood and even clinical depression.
So how to know what kind of daydream is good for you?
When psychologists are asked ‘what is the secret to being happy’, they often reply that people report feeling happiest when socializing, and interacting with friends.
As feeling socially connected is linked to more social activities, it would appear that at least one secret to happiness is to ‘get out there’ more, and connect with people close to you. This is indeed the theme of the current International Day of Happiness.
But it is also true that no matter how gregarious you are, a substantial part of each day is typically spent with little positive social activity, and separated from close signiﬁcant others, for example, being at work.
Yet even in the absence of actually socialising, the mind invariably drifts to imagine others and to mentally simulate past and possible future social scenarios – in other words – daydreaming.
In fact psychological research suggests that an inordinate amount of time is indeed spent daydreaming, between 30% and 50% of our waking state.
Daydreams are indeed a kind of ‘psychological baseline’ to which people return in the absence of external distractions or demands, so it could even be argued that daydreams are the core of all mental experience.
The problem is certain forms of daydreaming may be detrimental to well-being, and some kinds have been found by previous psychological research to be linked to low mood, even clinical depression, and this may be due certain daydreamsbeing associated with rumination and self-focused attention.
So the wrong kind of daydreaming can lead to feeling less happy, while perhaps those who are happier may be having better daydreams.
Daydreams may not just be idle or pointless – they may reﬂect ambitions and could lend themselves to attaining goals. This idea has inspired psychologists at the University of Sheffield to investigate whether one of the secrets to happiness could reside in daydreaming and in particular, the quality of daydreams.
The psychologists, Giulia Poerio, Peter Totterdell , Lisa-Marie Emerson and Eleanor Miles cite an example; hearing a friend’s name in a song on the radio may act as a reminder that the friend has an upcoming birthday, which then triggers thoughts and images about what gift to give, what the birthday party might be like, who will be there, and what conversations might unfold.
Some daydreams therefore involve mentally pursuing or seemingly attaining goals, when doing so in reality is not possible. Daydreams are beginning to be taken more seriously by neuroscience and psychology, hence this latest study entitled ‘Love is the triumph of the imagination: Daydreams about signiﬁcant others are associated with increased happiness, love and connection’.
Daydreams could be classified as being ‘approach-oriented’, i.e., concerned with the attainment of positive ends (e.g. afﬁliation) or ‘avoidance-oriented’, i.e. concerned with the prevention of negative ends (e.g. social rejection).
‘Approach’ daydreams might be more likely than those involving social avoidance to be associated with positive social feelings.
One hundred and one volunteers were recruited into the study and 371 reports of naturally occurring daydreams were analysed and social daydreams, deﬁned as daydreams where another person or people are involved, were associated with increased happiness, love and connection.
The results suggest that people’s everyday social feelings are shaped by their imaginary, as well as actual, social worlds, and that daydreams can be a source of positive ‘other-directed’ feelings.
The authors also argue that their results indicate that imagining the pursuit of social goals is not simply a pleasant experience, but also one that is associated with a similar emotion to that which would occur as a result of actually pursuing those same goals.
However, increased positive feelings were only observed when the relationship quality between the daydreamer and most central person in the daydream was classiﬁed as ‘high’ and when people were low in feelings of happiness, love and connection before their daydream..
These results suggest that social daydreams may function to regulate emotion: imagining close others may serve the current emotional needs of daydreamers by increasing positive feelings towards themselves and others. In other words if you want to cheer yourself up, one of the most reliable ways is to daydream about those close to you.
Another possible implication is that if you are ‘loved up’, daydreaming can make you more so, but perhaps only if the daydream is with the right person. Couple therapists might consider that another possible implication of this study is that one guide as to the true worth of your relationship is the quality of the daydreams associated with it.
On the International Day of Happiness, improving your well-being clearly includes hanging out and doing something nice for those who are important to you – it’s about giving and sharing rather than navel-gazing.
But for those periods when you may be unable to connect with others – positive daydreams about the important people in your life, are now emerging as also a key part of the answer.
Follow Dr Raj Persaud on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@DrRajPersaud
Raj Persaud is a Consultant Psychiatrist in Private Practice in Harley Street, London UK and author of several best-selling books including ‘The Mind: A Users Guide’ published by Bantam Press. Professor Adrian Furnham is Professor of Psychology at University College London and one of the most published Psychologists in the world.
Raj Persaud is joint podcast editor for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now has a free app on iTunes and google play store entitled ‘Raj Persaud in conversation’, which includes a lot of free information on the latest research findings in mental health, plus interviews with top experts from around the world.
His books are available on amazon.co.uk here: