Whether we are sipping our morning coffee and dreaming about our ideal job or spacing out during a meeting and thinking about a new life abroad, we are all guilty of indulging in idle fantasy. A 2010 Harvard study found that people spend 46.9 per cent of their waking hours daydreaming.The finding came about after psychologists Matt Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert undertook a research project called “Track Your Happiness”, collecting the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of 2,255 participants as they carried on with their lives.
Exactly how a daydream begins is hard to pinpoint. Vividly imagining a scenario and staying in that train of thought long enough to categorise the genre of the fantasy can be the emotional equivalent of awakening from simple surgery to find your entire hand missing.
Fighting back thoughts takes a disciplined person, especially when those thoughts can creep up on you. You could very well be focusing on the matter at hand, ignoring the voices inside your head and suddenly they close in.
All it takes is a split second for you to turn around to find this full-length feature with you as the obligatory dominant lead.
It’s well-known that negative daydreaming can bring you down and could lead to or be an indicator of depression.
However, negative day dreaming is not always bad.
Author Todd Kashdan mentions in his book Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredients to a Fulfilling Life that “prehistoric men and women who worried a lot were more likely to survive than their carefree, positive-thinking peers. Thinking negatively served as an early warning system.” Negativity could scare the day dreamer into working harder to avoid the worst case scenario.
Envisioning a better future was what was supposed to help us get through whatever abrasive fate life throws our way.
However, the recent study by Gabriele Oettingen, Doris Mayer and Sam Portnow, published in the journal Psychological Science, puts positive fantasies in the spotlight.
Against most common knowledge, the research suggests that positive thinking can have an immediate positive effect, but it can cause depression in the long run when vision isn’t met by reality.
The mantra of “imagine positive outcomes and the universe will conspire to bring it to you” turned out to be a scheme. The universe doesn’t have the time to run through hoops to hand deliver a dream to your doorstep. Between the present reality and the imagined future is a long list of hard work and realistic expectations.
Most times the root of all mental pain is the amount of emotional attachment and time one wastes in one’s own fantasy bubble.
Realising the distance between reality and factoring in a hefty load of expectations and feelings of premature achievements can be devastating.
Oettingen and her co-authors noted that “inducing positive fantasies may indeed produce depressive symptoms by encouraging people to enjoy their success prematurely in their minds, thus lowering energy and effort”.
There are two sides to this coin: excessive mind wandering can lead to depression whether what is being imagined is positive or negative, unless the wandering party remains realistic when it comes to how realistically it will all unfold in the future.
You can’t live your days tilting your head against the window and enjoying farfetched dreams and abruptly going back to reality when the car stops.
Instead, harness the energy to realise your dreams by pursuing your goals. Don’t hinge your happiness and limit it to a few minutes of escapism.
Originally published in the national newspaper