Yes, it can make you more creative and lead to greater self-reflection, but one of the biggest upsides to daydreaming may be the one with the most immediate impact — namely, that it provides an easy escape from whatever boring thing you’re stuck doing. Your body may be trapped on the subway for another 45 minutes, but your mind can travel to any number of more enjoyable scenarios; letting your imagination wander can make mundane to-dos like cleaning or exercise a little more fun; there’s a whole Reddit page dedicated to the weird places your brain takes you while you’re in the shower.
But as writer Libby Copeland recently explained in Smithsonian, daydreaming-as-escapism isn’t really as effective as we seem to think it is: Research has shown that it doesn’t make people any happier than just focusing on the moment, even when that moment isn’t really that great. In one 2010 study, researchers created an app that sent users seemingly random alerts over the course of the day, each time asking them what they were doing, whether they were thinking about the task at hand or something else, and how happy they felt. Copeland summed up the results:
Overall, people were less happy when their minds wandered. Neutral and negative thoughts seemed to make them less happy than being in the moment, and pleasant thoughts made them no happier. Even when people were engaged in an activity they said they didn’t like—commuting, for example—they were happier when focused on the commute than when their minds strayed.
What’s more, people’s negative moods appeared to be the result, rather than the cause, of the mind wandering.
One possible explanation, as lead study author Matt Killingsworth told Smithsonian: “When our mind wanders, I think it really blunts the enjoyment of what it is that we’re doing.” Even if you’re not occupied with something enjoyable, there can still be small pleasures in it: interesting people-watching on the subway, for instance, or Copeland’s example of the feel of hot water against your skin in the shower — both things you miss when you let yourself zone out. Plus, there’s always the chance your daydream could turn into a worry spiral, sending your brain to a situation far less pleasant than the one you were trying to ignore in the first place.