The right way to daydream

Daydreaming is an art that we all must master. I often feel guilty for letting so much time lapse in fake scenarios and alternate lives, but according to a study done at the University of Florida, daydreaming is a part of our cognitive toolkit that's underdeveloped. 

"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," said University of Florida psychology professor, Erin Westgate. 

Westgate believes that recapturing a daydream state boosts overall wellness and pain tolerance, but when she had study participants daydream without guidance or instructions, she discovered that most people don't intuitively understand how to think enjoyable thoughts. 

When we're nudged to think for fun instead of meaning, we tend to default to superficial pleasures like eating ice cream, which don't scratch the same itch as thoughts that are pleasant but also meaningful. But when Westgate provided participants with a list of examples that were both pleasant and meaningful, they enjoyed thinking 50% more than when they were instructed to think about whatever they wanted. That's knowledge you can harness in your everyday life by prompting yourself with topics you'd find rewarding to daydream about, like a pleasant memory, future accomplishment, or an event you're looking forward to, she says.

Here's how to master it.

* Trust that it's possible to have a good experience if you prime your brain with topics you'll find pleasant. "This is something all of us can do once you have the concept. We give 4- and 5-year-olds these instructions, and it makes sense to them."

* That said, "This is hard for everybody. There's no good evidence that some types of people are simply better thinkers. I'm the world's worst person at this: I would definitely rather have the electric shock," Westgate said. "But knowing why it can be hard and what makes it easier really makes a difference. The encouraging part is we can all get better."

* Don't confuse planning things with thinking for pleasure. "People say they enjoy planning, but when we test it, they do not."

* Choose the right time to try. Research shows we're most likely to daydream when our minds are minimally occupied with something else, like showering or brushing our teeth. "The next time you're walking, instead of pulling out your phone, try it," Westgate says.   

Read more: Why we're so bad at daydreaming, and how to fix it

Related: Daydreaming brains are afire