Why Is Daydreaming Difficult For Grownups?

17:29 minutes

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Children have a natural talent for imagination. Even in moments of boredom, their imagination can take them away into daydreams that help pass the time in a flash. But for many adults, falling into a daydream is hard, especially when our minds are filled with worries about tomorrow’s obligations, finances, and a global pandemic. 

Turns out those who feel this way are not alone. New research shows that adults report getting to a daydreaming state is harder than experiencing their unguided thoughts. Adults often require a prompt to think about something pleasant, and tend to ruminate on unpleasant things. 

Daydreaming can be an antidote to boredom, and researcher Erin Westgate of the University of Florida says that’s important. Her previous research shows that boredom can cause sadistic behavior in people. Westgate joins guest host John Dankosky and Manoush Zomorodi, host of the TED Radio Hour and author of the book Bored and Brilliant, who argues leaning into boredom can unlock our most creative selves.

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Segment Guests

Erin Westgate

Erin Westgate is an assistant professor of Psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida.

Manoush Zomorodi

Manoush Zomorodi is host of the TED Radio Hour, and author of the book Bored and Brilliant. She’s based in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: Oh, hi. This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. Sorry, I was just daydreaming a bit there. You know, you ever do that? You just daydream for a few minutes in the middle of the day. I did that a lot as a kid. Usually, it was about baseball or Star Wars or playing in a rock band. Now you may have done the same thing growing up, and let’s face it– as kids, we didn’t have quite as many responsibilities, so we had the time to just let our minds wander.

But I got to say, it’s a lot harder these days. I mean, when I have a free moment, my mind usually wanders to COVID or politics or climate change or what I have to do tomorrow. But that’s not really daydreaming, is it? And let’s face it– when I have a free moment, I’m probably just going to look at my phone.

As it turns out, it’s not just me. Research shows that adults are really bad at daydreaming. Here to convince us that we should lean back into thinking for fun is my guest, Dr. Erin Westgate, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Dr. Westgate, nice to have you back on the show. Thanks so much for being here.

ERIN WESTGATE: Thanks so much for having me.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So I want to start by asking, is there a scientific definition of what a daydream is?

ERIN WESTGATE: Ah, that’s a giant can of worms there. When we use terms like daydreaming, of course, we all have the sort of private intuitions of what it means. And even in the scientific community, we’ve gotten into a little bit of what do you mean by daydreaming, what do I mean. And so, we actually use the term thinking for pleasure, which is a little bit more precise. And we usually talk about it as being defined as intentional thinking for pleasure, so really sitting down and intentionally trying to have these positive, pleasant thoughts by yourself, or what we colloquially might call daydreaming.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So a list of things I’m doing tomorrow isn’t a daydream, but imagining a possible future for myself might be.

ERIN WESTGATE: Exactly. So if you sit down and you’re imagining what you need to do in the future, we’d call that planning. Or if you– not that I ever do this, but you’re walking down the street and you’re overcome by worries about what you need to do, we might call that mind wandering. And mind wandering can be a form of daydreaming, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be very unpleasant and aversive at times as well.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So let’s talk about your research. What exactly did you find when you tried to get adults to daydream? And how exactly did you do this?

ERIN WESTGATE: Yeah, so a few years ago, we had this great idea. We thought at the time that everyone has these busy lives. If we just gave everyone a few moments to daydream, that this would be fantastic if you’re relaxing, and people would enjoy it. So we started bringing people into the lab, and we’d put them in this room. We’d take away all their belongings and say, for the next 5 to 20 minutes, we just want you to sit here and entertain yourself with your thoughts. You can think about whatever you want, but we want you to try to have a good time.

And we got the data in, and people did not enjoy this. On a one to nine scale, from 1 is not at all enjoyable to 9 is extremely enjoyable, they gave it a 5, which I always say, if you wanted to go to a movie and you saw it had a 50% Rotten Tomato rating, you wouldn’t be impressed by this, right? A 5 out of 9 is pretty not great. So we’re like, well, but compared to what? What does that mean? And so we started sort of testing alternatives. Like, would you rather think for pleasure, like we’ve asked you to do, or would you rather read a book or do something else by yourself?

And of course, people were like, yeah, I’d rather do something fun than think something fun. And so we thought, wow, how far can this go? What if it was something that wasn’t so fun? Would people even give themselves, say, an electric shock rather than simply sit and be alone with their own thoughts? And so we actually ran the study. We brought people into the lab. We took away all their belongings. We said we want you to experience this shock once just so you know what it’s like and rate it and here’s some other sort of experiences you can have.

And later, in the so-called second part of the study, we said, OK, now we want you to just sit here and entertain yourself with your thoughts. You can think whatever you want. But by the way, you’re still connected to that electric shock device. If you want– I don’t know why you would, but if you want, you can press it, and it will shock you again.

And so we left them in the room for, we said, 10 to 20 minutes. It was about 12 minutes. And afterwards, we found that 67% of the men and about 25% of the women in this study who had told us earlier that they would pay money to not be shocked again, that they found the shock unpleasant, actually went ahead and shocked themselves during the supposedly fun daydreaming time.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So hold it. Were they bored? Is that what this is all about?

ERIN WESTGATE: I think so. I don’t think it’s that’s– it’s not something as existential as being alone with our thoughts is torture. It’s just, it’s kind of boring. And when people are bored, we know they do all kinds of interesting things. And if you’re in this board room, your thoughts aren’t super entertaining, and there’s this button. You know the button will shock yourself, and I think there’s a real allure to pressing that button when we’re bored.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So I mean, do you think there’s benefit in trying to avoid boredom?

ERIN WESTGATE: Yeah, I think of boredom as really being this signal that what’s going on isn’t working for you right now, that it’s this signal that you’re not meaningfully engaged in the world. And you need to do something to try to restore a sense of meaning or restore a sense of attention and making sure you’re actually paying attention to what’s going on. And people sort of look around for that and ways to do that. And hopefully, they find good ways, but if the only option is a button that shocks yourself, at least some people will press that button.

JOHN DANKOSKY: OK, well, Erin, I knew that we were going to be talking about boredom. So I thought who could we bring into the conversation that comes to mind immediately when I think about something boring? And it’s my friend, Manoush Zomorodi. She’s host of the TED Radio Hour on NPR. She’s the author of the book, Bored and Brilliant, How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self. She’s been a guest and a host here on Science Friday. Manoush, it’s great to have you back.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: John, you flatterer. He’s telling me when you think of being bored, you think of me. It’s great to be here again.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, look, you studied boredom just about as much as anyone. First of all, what do you think about what Erin’s been saying about people being so bored that they’ll shock themselves?

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Yes, I am not surprised by that at all. I think this is– it’s so interesting to me because one of the things that I came into when I was writing a book about boredom was the use of the word bored, which immediately has these awful connotations. And as you said, Erin, the word daydreaming has more of a positive sort of spin on it. So my goal with the experiments that I did that I wrote about in my book is to say to people, when you feel bored, don’t immediately turn to your gadgets, which is what we all usually do– anything to avoid being bored, right? Sit with that feeling of being bored, sit with that uncomfortable feeling of being bored.

Erin gave them the option to shock themselves. But what I said was, and maybe if you think of boredom as sort of a gateway to mind wandering to so-called positive constructive daydreaming, this idea of– and I’m sure Erin can speak more to this– activating the default mode in our minds where we do all kinds of imagining and creative thinking and problem solving and autobiographical planning. And my hypothesis was that if you tell people, yes, when you enter boredom, things can go bad, but things can also go good. If they understood why that could happen in their brains, that they would be more inclined to indulge in it and to unlock sort of this productive, creative, wonderful part of just staring into space.

JOHN DANKOSKY: What’s so interesting about that, though, Manoush, is the idea that there’s a connotation around daydreaming that doesn’t necessarily lead itself to being thought of as productive, right? People think you’re daydreaming, you’re just lazing about. Your mind’s just wandering. You’re not actually being productive. But you essentially say this is a very productive time.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Yeah, when I did the research into what happens, I had no idea that one of the things we do when we daydream is essentially time travel. We do something called autobiographical planning, which is that we look back at our past. We take note of the highs and lows. We tell ourselves a story how we got to be sitting right here in this moment.

And then we cast forward into the future and literally imagine what could my life be and then work backwards to try and set the steps to reach those goals. So it’s really, really important mental work that you cannot do if you are checking Twitter, or in my case, playing a particular game called Two Dots.

JOHN DANKOSKY: [CHUCKLES] Erin, I’d love for you to comment on that. What are your thoughts?

ERIN WESTGATE: I really love that idea that something I say a lot is boredom isn’t good or bad. It’s a signal. And it’s what we do with that signal that’s important. There’s a lot of research that connects boredom to a lot of these really fantastic outcomes. So, creativity and mind wandering, and there’s some really cool work that Jonathan Schooler and colleagues have done, where they find that some of these sort of epiphany moments and creative problem solving, they don’t come when you’re sitting at your desk and working on it. They come in the shower. They come in these moments when you’re kind of doing something else. And this thought just sort of pops into your head, sort of that classic eureka aha moment in the bath, right?

But we also have a lot of work showing that boredom can also lead to all these really negative, terrible outcomes. So the electric shock studies that I told you about, my colleague Stefan Pfattheicher has work showing that when you induce boredom in the lab, it can also lead people to behave in sadistic ways, so grinding up bugs for fun or taking money away from other participants in the study. You don’t get the money. You’re just being a jerk.

And so, we have all this literature suggesting boredom sometimes leads to these good outcomes, and it sometimes leads to these bad outcomes. And I think, going back to what Manoush said, it really depends on how people choose to react to boredom in the moment and what options they have available to them.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: So Erin, can I ask you a question?


MANOUSH ZOMORODI: One of the things that younger people told me, which I found so surprising, was they reported after they put away their gadgets and they tried to be more bored, essentially, they said to me, this is the weirdest, most uncomfortable feeling. I have never experienced it before. And I was like, wait a minute. What? You’ve never been bored? And they were like, yeah, I just look at my phone, so I don’t need to feel this way, and I don’t like it. Does that surprise you? Or are you thinking that maybe some of the people that you had in your study had never been bored before, that they’d never even had this daydreaming sensation?

ERIN WESTGATE: So I think that a lot of people have that bored, but I get this a lot actually when I ask people. I study boredom, and they say, oh, I’m never bored. And I’m like, really? Really, really? And usually what I find is something like that flicker that leads people to pick up the phone, that’s boredom, right? It’s sort of a– I always talk about boredom as it develops over time. And it starts with this little flicker, that if you act on it, you can make it go away.

And we know from the emotion literature in coping that there are lots of positive ways to cope with big emotions and negative emotions. And there are some not so great ways to cope with it. And the not great ways to cope usually involve suppressing the feelings, instead of dealing with the feelings. So if boredom, part of what it’s doing is saying, look, hey, what you’re doing right now is not really super meaningful, picking up your phone to sort of combat that and make that go away, it doesn’t solve the lack of meaning that produced it.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Manoush, I should say, your book was published back in 2017. Do you think that the world of boredom has changed somehow? Because I can’t imagine that the book that you wrote in 2021 about this topic would be the same, because it’s been a year.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Honestly, I’ve been astounded at how, in some ways, prescient the book was. And I say that because that’s what people are telling me, that they’re like, I didn’t get why I needed your book until this year, that I think for some people, the ones who were privileged enough to be stuck at home and not working on the front lines, there was a lot of boredom. There was a lot of bread baking. There was a lot of Instagramming of our bread baking, right?

And there was a lot of people who were like, I feel trapped and uncomfortable in part because I have so much time to think. And so, my book, in addition to explaining sort of the neuroscience of what happens with boredom and exploring the linguistic use of the word, I also have these exercises where it’s a challenge. It’s very specific and discrete. Try this. Lean into boredom now that you understand how you can sort of get to this positive daydreaming side, and see if it helps.

And part of it is just observing yourself under– running sort of behavioral experiments on yourself in captivity. That’s kind of one of my things that I love to do. It sounds a little sadistic, but it can be wonderful as well. And so to have people saying, understanding it, knowing that you’ve tried it, knowing that thousands of other people have tried it because it was based on an experiment we did in 2015 with 20,000 people. I think that gave them permission to kind of relax into the boredom, into the daydreaming, and to, hopefully, embrace it in some ways and to see some of the positive effects that we’ve been discussing.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m John Dankosky, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. I’m talking with Dr. Erin Westgate, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and Manoush Zomorodi, the host of the TED Radio Hour on NPR and author of the book, Bored and Brilliant. She’s based in New York. And we’re talking about boredom, and we’re talking about daydreaming. Yet Erin, I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on this, on how this specific year of COVID has maybe changed the way either you or people you study think about daydreaming and time being bored.

ERIN WESTGATE: That’s such an interesting question. We started to collect some data on this. And one of the things that has struck me is how variable people’s experiences have been. I work from home most of the time. I certainly have been on like team boredom this pandemic, I guess I would say. A lot of bread was baked in this house as well.

But there’s a lot of folks, too, and we look at this global data from over 60,000 folks. There are many people who– especially essential workers, folks in health care– who haven’t been bored at all. And so, I think really understanding this variability and embracing it, to some extent. And I really love, Manoush, your point about sort of the self experiments.

And the importance of all of the data that we collect in psychology is really sort of about the average, like what typically works for a typical person. And I think it’s really important for folks to do those experiments on themselves and say, well, does this work for me? And being able to adapt things like that to people’s own circumstances, especially during the pandemic, when so many people are having such very different experiences. I think it’s really, really valuable.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: Erin, what you just said really speaks to a lot of the stories that I heard from the people who have followed the exercises in the book, which is that for some people, they have an epiphany and they decide, you know what? I haven’t talked to my dad in 20 years. I’m going to do it. Because they’ve really thought about how they want to go about doing it. They’ve thought very carefully.

For other people, it’s simply like, oh, I’m happier when I sleep more and I pick up my guitar instead of being on Facebook. And so they decide to do that more. As much as the data is interesting, it’s really very much the personal stories about how boredom I think is an extremely, and daydreaming, a very personal experience that you treat yourself. Lean into the boredom, lean into the daydreaming. It’s just for you, no one else.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And Erin, do you have any thoughts about that? If people want to reframe some of this pent-up boredom into positive daydreaming, do you have any tips for them?

ERIN WESTGATE: Yeah, so I always think of boredom as being an invitation to fix something that’s going wrong. And we know that you can make things less boring by making them more meaningful and making them a better fit. It’s like Goldilocks. You don’t want to do something that’s too hard or too easy. And you can apply that to thinking, to make daydreaming more enjoyable and more accessible as well.

So, you want to pick topics that are meaningful to you. Imagining eating ice cream is kind of fun, but it’s not deeply meaningful and satisfying. And you want to make it easy on yourself. Thinking is actually really, really hard. It involves a lot of cognitive effort. You have to be this playwright and the audience and the director and the actors of this whole mental performance.

So anything you can do to make it easier by having topics in mind, by reminding yourself of what you want to think about, by picking moments where you don’t have a lot else going on, where you can really focus, is really key to making it easy, making it meaningful, and having a more enjoyable and less boring experience.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Dr. Erin Westgate is assistant professor of psychology at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Thank you so much for joining us on Science Friday. I really appreciate it.

ERIN WESTGATE: Thanks so much.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And Manoush Zomorodi is host of the TED Radio Hour on NPR. And she’s author of the book, Bored and Brilliant. She’s based in New York. Always good to talk with you, Manoush.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI: You, too, John. Thanks for having me back.

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John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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