Four reasons why daydreams scare off mindfulness

Complex problems have simple easy to understand wrong answers.

Henry Louis Mencken

I have recently been very interested in what it is that makes mindfulness feel quite difficult at times.

Up to 96% of adults daydream every day.

I am using the term daydreaming in the broadest possible way. There are ways in which it is positive (visualisation, rehearsal, creativity), but we all know that it can get out of hand very easily.  These so called self-generated thoughts (SGTs) interfere with external task performance and can signal unhappiness and even mental health issues. They also occupy our thoughts for upwards of half of the time. In appropriate contexts, SGTs

  • allow us to connect our past and future selves together,
  • help us make successful long-term plans and
  • can provide a source of creative inspiration.

Given the time dedicated to the task, it seems natural to suggest that there must be an evolutionary advantage to being preoccupied with a daydream.

Contrary to the mindfulness rhetoric, daydreams can be seen as a mechanism for the consciousness gain freedom from the here and now – reflecting a key evolutionary adaptation for the mind.

There is evidence that  SGTs are normal and may even be beneficial, so our natural inclination  to dismiss mind-wandering – and recent odes to the benefits mindfulness – are perhaps oversimplifying the problem.

mindfulness slipping into daydream

For the moment, however, I will focus on the negative aspects of daydreaming.  In 2016, the Journal of Conscious Cognition did a study on self-identified “maladaptive daydreamers”. These guys had more daydreams that involved fictional characters and elaborate plots and spent 56% of their waking hours fantasising.

Maladaptive daydreaming caused significant distress to the affected and was associated with higher rates of ADHD and OCD.

Another study echoed the findings and showed that the daydreams were typified by complex fantasised mental scenarios that were often laced with emotionally compensatory themes involving competency, social recognition, and support.

Of note, solitude is required for elaborate daydreams – worsening any existing social dysfunction.

Mind-wandering is situations when attention is required is obviously negative: it can signify performance disruptions, cognitive problems, risk taking or low motivation to perform a task. At the same time, the question arises: how do we define a situation that requires attention?  The resolution here is obvious. The capacity to regulate the occurrence of SGTs so as to reduce the risk of derailing on-going task performance is a marker of properly functioning, well-adjusted cognition. It is context-dependent – and requires self-awareness. Indeed, a brain trained with the practice of mindfulness would seem better equipped to recognise appropriate situations and adapt more quickly.

On a more philosophical note, however, what’s to say one isn’t missing out on some important unknown unknown in an apparent “safe-to-daydream zone”?

Based on some research and a preliminary Twitter poll, I have come up with 4 main feelings that trigger daydreams.  If none of the four describe what it is like for you, please do comment, I am very keen to find out!

maladaptiveday dreaming mindfulness

19 Comments Add yours

  1. Interesting analysis! At certain times I was a chronic daydreamer — times of boredom or despair. But I learned as a child that it is not tactful or wise to daydream in school. I now consciously steer my daydreaming into pre-writing where it is enormously useful for plot development. When you’re happy and in control of your life, that’s easy.


  2. Very interesting! It explains a lot about me- my daydreaming certainly gets in the way of being in control and mindfulness.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. S Francis says:

    I find that daydreaming is sometimes a product of feeling inadequate or insecure; daydreaming is often the contemplation of how one “could” make life better of correct the inadequacies. Thus for me the root is loneliness, but I don’t think that loneliness is the cause, but rather isolation and trying to find a path out of that isolation.


  4. Rivenrod says:

    56% of their waking hours fantasising . . . there are some who, of course, fantasise 100% of the time! They know who they are but will never admit to it.

    This is an interesting insight. For a time during the 80s and 90s Advertising Agencies were particularly interested in the semi-cognitive state of shoppers and how markers prompted purchasing decisions. Very cynical in my view but apparently effective.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re totally right. The most striking thing is that some people actually do prefer to be alone and fantasise than be with others.
      As for marketing, it is part of the reason I started this blog. I want to understand how marketers/politicians/influencers use our minds as their agents. Robert Cialdini wrote about the kind of thing you’re talking about – he’s excellent.My review here if you’re keen :)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Marty says:

    Daydreaming in my mind would be a form of dissociation. Leaving this present
    Moment to ruminate or daydream could cause more suffering.

    Anyone with a history of
    Trauma, PTSD, depression or an anxiety
    Disorder would be susceptible to
    Dissociate or daydreaming.

    The explanation that leaving this present moment to daydream or Dissociate is good flies In the face of a Mindful path.

    The left Prefrontal cortex houses our positive
    And they light up the
    Most When we are mindful, empty of thought and ever Present.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a difficult balance. If we never daydreamed, we’d still live in caves. What do you think?


      1. Marty says:

        We all daydream and our fantasies we daydream about are fine if in proper perspective

        Daydreaming could replace real life for some

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I agree. I tend to have this perfectionist tendency “be mindful all the time” or “think hard about x, y, z right now”. It doesn’t work that way though, does it? 🙂


      3. Marty says:

        Perfectionism leads to suffering

        We try not to judge. We try to let go of thought and judgment
        Perfectionism maybe the ultimate

        Liked by 1 person

      4. It sure feels like that!


      5. Marty says:

        First comes awareness then acceptance

        Accepting everything about ourselves is the opposite of
        Judgment or perfectionism

        Should not
        Or we
        Hinder it

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Marty says:

    Simple words are very difficult to
    Live. By

    We should alwYs accept and forgive ourselves

    Negative emotions are worthless

    Play with guilt

    Why be guilty over. The past it is a waste
    If time

    A waste of life

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Marty says:

    Good discussion


  8. Being a highly creative person, I have to say that I don’t think people could create without first dreaming.

    And I can see how for some people daydreaming could get out of hand. But the daydreaming is only one in a series of issues that marks those people as antisocial or whatever. I don’t think daydreaming in and of itself is at all a bad thing. There is no way I could feel balanced and grounded without a certain amount of it. Skewing more toward introversion, it’s necessary or I feel chaotic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree, I think it is a spectrum Bela. At one point, I used to go running a lot and my main motivation was that I would alone to daydream while I run. Highly functional, yet obviously somewhat crazy!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Interesting read. In my past, I was in a terrible relationship for a number of years and I was refusing to acknowledge the fact that it was the source of my unhappiness. I was blaming other external factors for my depression and anxiety. At that time of my life, stuck in my unhappiness, I was definitely daydreaming far more frequently than I ever have before. Maybe daydreaming is a form of escape when we are not satisfied with the reality that surrounds us. It’s sometimes easier to escape into a daydream than to proactively change our lives for the better step by step. Will not be making that mistake again.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Ethan Nelson says:

    Mindfulness definitely has countless benefits. Sometimes I just feel like it was right in front of my eyes and it was so obvious. Mindfulness that is, the obviousness of living in the moment is astounding. I wish I knew how to do it more often.

    Even with a meditation practice I still tend to get lost in thought for the better part of a day. Although, as soon as I realize that I’m doing so I will always bring myself back to the present moment through my breathe or by listening to everything around me.


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