In defence of the daydream

In defence of the daydream

I’ll tell you one thing, 3 o’clock in the afternoon while sitting in an over-warm, if modern and comfortable lecture theatre, is a dangerous time to attend a talk on mindfulness that includes a mini-practice session at the end. You know, where you close your eyes, sit calmly, breathe deeply, and focus your thinking…

… until you almost fall asleep because you have a 1 year old who thinks anything more than 2 hour sleep stretches at a time is indulgent and her mother doesn’t actually need sleep anyway, because mothers of 1 year olds just don’t. Pfft, didn’t you know that?

After having two babies in three years with a pathological aversion to sleep, I don’t think I’ve slept more than 2 or 3 hours at a stretch for, oh, more than four years now. Forget your seven or eight hours straight a night, I’m glad just to get a series of 2 hour stretches somewhat in a row for at least half the night.

So when Mindfulness Guy suggested we all get comfy and close our eyes, mid-afternoon in a drowsy lecture theatre, I initiated the fight-or-flight panic response in terror that I might legitimately fall asleep. Which is I’m guessing the opposite reaction to what he was going for, but so be it. I’m too much of a cynic to walk-in-step with the latest mindfulness fad anyway.

Don’t get me wrong, the whole mindfulness thing makes some nice points. The need to understand, recognise and identify different aspects of our own thought processes is an important life skill, including halting damaging circular thoughts and negative thought spirals before they create too much mental carnage. Like most middle-aged types, I’ve experienced my periods of adult-life-crises in the past and had to figure out how to manage that kind of thing. A part of being a modern human, I guess.

Only when Mr Mindfulness started laying out his evidence and began with a report from the Gates Foundation – i.e. not exactly the peer reviewed journal I’d have hoped for from an academic (I did mention my day job is working for a University, yes?) – and then began chattering about a study that found people were happy when focused in the moment and not letting their minds wander, I felt my hard-wired scepticism-mode kick in.

Maybe it’s the writer in me, but in my life daydreams have always been my saving grace. Letting my mind wander, daydreaming, creating stories in my head or just letting my thoughts go where they will, is my safety net, my lifeline in tough times. You know, those same tough times that the whole mindfulness thing is supposed to help you cope with.

But according to our Mindfulness Guru, daydreams, unfocused thinking and letting the mind wander are Big Bad Things Guaranteed To Give You All The Sads.

His study found that people self-reported being happy when they focused on the task they were doing right in the moment. Conversely they were unhappy when their minds were wandering, daydreaming, or they were thinking of other things. According to The Mindfulness Man, the obvious conclusion is we should stop daydreaming, mind-wandering or thinking too much and just focus, dammit.

Now, I’m all for focusing when a task needs to be done. You need to get something finished, focus is needed. Yep. Got that. I certainly don’t want the brain surgeons, airline pilots, or guardians of small children in this world getting distracted at the wrong moment. And hey, I write novels. You don’t write 100k plus words over a sustained period of time for no guaranteed result and then go back and rewrite it over and over again to make it better, and then trunk it when its rejected by all the publishers, to start again with a new 100k plus word novel, and keep repeating the cycle for years on end, without knowing something about focus.

Focus is good. Necessary. Nothing would get done without it.

But very little would be created without daydreaming, either. And while Mindfulness Guy drew his conclusions that daydream = bad because his rather dodgy, non-peer-reviewed, tiny-self-reporting-sample study found people said they were unhappy when they weren’t focused, I drew different conclusions.

So in the spirit of the same anecdotal evidence as he was presenting – all hail anecdata, the internets run on it some days – I’d like to posit an alternative:

I focus when I’m enjoying the task before me. Or if I feel competent, supported and properly resourced in undertaking the task. Or if I can see how it fits in the bigger picture. Or I am engaged with its purpose. When one or more of those things are in place, I focus without conscious effort, when I need to, and get the job done.

But if I am unhappy with the task before me because I don’t know how to do it, or can’t see its significance in the grander scheme of things, or I disagree with its ultimate purpose, I lose focus.

In other words, it’s not lack-of-focus on a task leading to a general unhappiness, it’s unhappiness with the task leading to a general lack-of-focus.

And it’s the daydreaming, mind-wandering and general distraction that gets me through such disliked and unhappy tasks. If what I’m doing is awful or troubling or impossible to achieve or just has no point, but I’m stuck doing it anyway, then if I don’t daydream of a better place, a more fulfilling narrative, a more exciting story in my head, then I’m going to be all the more consumed by the general awfulness of the disliked task ahead.

I can get through most any difficulty, so long as I have a good daydream to fall back on.

Maybe it’s a writer thing. I create stories in my head. If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t have anything to write down and try to interest publishers with. That’s what I do, what I’ve always done. It’s who I am. And I don’t actually know any creatives, whether they be writers or painters or sculptors or video game designers or musicians or philosophers or business builders or whoever, who aren’t brilliant daydreamers.

But then, I don’t know many people, full stop, who aren’t inherently creative one way or another. Regardless of whether they’re actively engaged in creating art or not. For all the years I worked in the corporate world, I lost count of the number of co-workers, colleagues, clients, service providers, vendors, and managers who all had a semi-secret creative passion, of art, or writing, or making music, or creating in some way. I knew many who were not actively engaging in their passions due to lack of time, energy or opportunity. I knew those, too, who claimed not to be creative, and yet would spend hours making up games with their kids, or cooking amazing concoctions or building a small business or working on a personal project. Being creative isn’t always about art. Sometimes it’s just about the way you build a life.

So to my mind, to be human is to be creative, and to be creative is to daydream.

So here’s my advice to the world and, yes, it’s based entirely on my anecdotal experience, but that’s just as evidence-based as the stuff Mindfulness Guy was peddling:

To daydream is to be happy, so let your mind wander as you need.* Create beautiful places in your head, or exciting action sequences, or witty banter bouncing between imaginary characters who are just the kind of people you like to hang out with, or impossible romantic liaisons, or high dramatic tension, or fine, fine music, or extraordinary visuals, or world-changing campaigns, or community-enriching organisations, or whatever gets the blood rushing through your veins.

Because to daydream isn’t just to be happy, it is to be human.

And to borrow a line from some obscure movie you’ve probably never heard of, anybody who tells you different is selling something.

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* P.S. With the caveat, of course, that picking your time is key. Try not to let your mind wander if, say, you’re in the middle of conducting neurosurgery or landing a plane. Daydreams are wonderful, but focus is great too, and the two are not mutually exclusive. 😉