Mentally drifting away to a better time or place can aid adults during times of stress, new research shows.

Children's minds often drift away to a tranquil place during playtime (or whenever they want!). However, a recent study published in the journal Emotion found that daydreaming is actually more difficult for adults; we often lose this imaginative practice as we age. "This is part of our cognitive toolkit that's underdeveloped, and it's kind of sad," said Erin Westgate, Ph.D., a University of Florida psychology professor, in a statement. To actually daydream, our brains have to create positive thoughts—which can be a challenge. "You have to be the actor, director, screenwriter, and audience of a mental performance. Even though it looks like you're doing nothing, it's cognitively taxing," she added. "We're fairly clueless. We don't seem to know what to think about to have a positive experience."

Westgate and her team noted that since daydreaming is associated with our emotions, people who do so can better tolerate pain and boost their overall wellness. They rounded up a group of volunteers to test this theory. The researchers asked participants to think positive, meaningful thoughts. While the team hypothesized that this would help volunteers daydream, the participants in the study didn't like the process and wanted a guided experience, instead. "It was heavy stuff. It didn't seem to occur to them that they could use the time to enjoy their own thoughts," Westgate said.

woman at desk looking off in distance
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According to the study's results, volunteers thought about things that actually didn't have strong ties to their memories or emotions, like ice cream. Participants noted a 50-percent boost to their creative thinking when study authors gave them topics to choose from, like future goals, anticipated events, and favorite memories. Ultimately, thinking positively through daydreaming has incredible mental benefits. "It's something that sets us apart. It defines our humanity. It allows us to imagine new realities, however, that kind of thinking requires practice," noted Westgate.

To accomplish this on your own, try to summon enjoyable thoughts. "This is something all of us can do once you have the concept. We give four- and five-year-olds these instructions, and it makes sense to them," she added. "Also, keep in mind this is hard for everybody. There's no good evidence that some types of people are simply better thinkers. The encouraging part is we can all get better." Lastly, daydreaming at the right times, like during day-to-day tasks, brushing your teeth, or bathing, will make the process smoother. "The next time you're walking, instead of pulling out your phone, try it," said Westgate. "As you build your ability to daydream, you'll have a source of enjoyable thoughts at your disposal during stressful times. What we feel is a function of what we think. Thinking for pleasure can be a powerful tool to shape our emotions."


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