Since returning from Israel almost two months ago, I’ve found myself slipping into daydream an awful lot.
My mind will wander from whatever it is I’m doing to a scene of beaches along the Mediterranean, a crater in the Negev, or a bar in Tel Aviv.
I have a love/hate relationship with daydreaming. On the one hand, letting my mind wander allows me to be more creative, to imagine good times in the future, and to remember good times of the past. On the other hand, too much daydreaming can make me disconnected from reality.
In fact, mind-wandering is a major cause of unhappiness, and is incredibly common. People spend 47% of their time thinking about things other than what they are currently doing. And it turns out that these people are less happy when they let their mind wander, no matter what they were doing. This is a fascinating study, and I highly recommend you read about in more detail.
That being said, it would be premature to dismiss mind-wandering, daydreaming, and/or visualization entirely. There is ample evidence from sports to show that mental practice or visualization can improve physical performance or motor skills in players1. Positive fantasies are also useful when you want to explore your possible future selves without being tied to the hardships of reality.
So what are we to do? How can the rational-minded among us use this information best to improve our lives and keep ourselves happy?
Let’s take a look at the research out there comparing healthy visualization with unhealthy fantasizing.
Healthy Visualization Vs. Unhealthy Fantasizing
Focusing on the present moment is generally your best bet. But for those times when you are mentally somewhere else, there is a fine line between self-improvement and escapism.
In this section, we will investigate the factors that determine whether your mind wandering is helpful or harmful.
Conscious vs. Unconscious
The first, and possibly most important distinction is whether you are fantasizing intentionally or without intention.
If you want to be able to let your mind wander and have it still be a healthy pastime, you must be doing it consciously. In other words, you are in control.
When you make the process of fantasizing conscious, you speed up the analytic brain, allowing you to gain insight from your fantasies2. On the other hand, if you just slip into daydream unaware, you will have trouble deriving any benefit from it.
Clearly, having strong mental control is important if you want to take advantage of what visualization techniques have to offer.
Motive Specific Fantasizing
Your fantasies are an important window into your mind. They can aid in your self-understanding and help you establish goals while providing motivation to strive for them.
We can divide motivations into implicit (unconscious) motives and self-attributed motives (“I really care about ___”). Our implicit motives tend to be aroused when we enjoy partaking in an activity for its own sake, and self-attributed motives are aroused when there is a social incentive involved3.
Having goals that are congruent with your implicit motivations tends to make you happier. It takes a certain degree of self-knowledge to set congruent goals, so it is not easy. But, by focusing on the right incentives in your fantasies, you can make it more likely that your implicit motivations will match your goals4.
An example might help here. Let’s say you fantasize about being in great shape. Focus on how good it feels to exercise and eat right, rather than how good you might look to other people. If this fantasy still feels good, chances are your implicit motivation matches your goal, and you will be propelled towards it. If not, you should reevaluate your goal.
Fantasy vs. Expectation
When thinking about the future, we must distinguish between fantasies and expectations. When you fantasize about something, you may have a positive or negative expectation with regards to whether it will come to pass in real life.
Since your fantasies can be positive or negative as well, there are four possible combinations of fantasy and expectation, each with different effects.
In a sample of obese women on a weight loss program, those with optimistic expectations but negative fantasies tended to lose the most weight. In contrast, those with pessimistic expectations but positive fantasies did the worst5.
In general, positive expectations leads to increased motivation and investment, and is more likely to lead to goal success. Conversely, positive fantasies encourage people to enjoy their “desired future” now, leading to a loss of motivation and investment6.
Some of you might be surprised by the finding that positive fantasizing can be a bad thing; I know I was. But it does make a lot of sense when you think about it.
If you imagine already having what it is you want, your brain can “fall for it” and induce a relaxation response instead of an energizing one. After all, you’ve already succeeded! Experimentally induced positive fantasies led to an energy reduction compared to fantasies questioning the desired future, negative fantasies, and neutral fantasies. Visualizing more pressing needs led to an even greater energy reduction than less pressing needs7.
In other words, be careful about indulging in positive fantasy. In order to make progress in your life and goals, you may need to sacrifice the comfortable illusion you’ve built up and spend more time in the real world.
Note: If you are feeling anxiety, a positive fantasy will induce a relaxation response and decrease it. They can still be useful!
How To Use Visualization Techniques Properly
If positive fantasies are really so risky, a highly significant self-help technique might be rendered worse than useless.
For many situations, this does mean that you shouldn’t indulge in fantasy. But that doesn’t mean fantasy or visualization techniques are always a bad thing. There is a right way to use them, which we will explore in more detail now.
First, let’s define proper visualization as the process of recreating all the images, sounds, and feelings in your mind surrounding an activity in order to practice in a perfect environment.
As you can see from this definition, proper visualization technique involves more than just letting your mind wander. There is an art to it, which we will go over now.
Treat Visualization As Though It Were A Rehearsal
Ultimately, visualization techniques are about practice.
You must therefore treat them as such. This mindset of visualization as practice will help you do it properly.
One of the most important things about practice or rehearsal is that it is scheduled. If you have something that you want to visualize, pick specific times to do it. For example, you can spend ten minutes on visualization before bed every other night, or at whatever intervals you want. Try making it a part of your morning routine.
And, because it is practice, you must take it seriously. It shouldn’t be half-assed. It takes work to recreate the images, sounds, and feelings of the situation you want to visualize, and you must be willing to put that work into it.
Relax Into Your Visualization
You can’t have an effective visualization session while you are feeling tense. You must be able to get yourself into a relaxed state before you begin, otherwise you won’t be able to do it properly.
Of course, if you wanted to visualize a situation in which you were tense, you can do that. But you must be able to relax yourself before you begin, otherwise it will be challenging to recreate the environment in your mind, because your focus will be elsewhere.
A few minutes of meditation is a great way to relax before a visualization session. But more than that, meditation also makes your mind-wandering thoughts less “sticky”. In other words, people who meditate can return their mind to whatever they were focusing on more quickly after a distracting thought pops up.
The ability to return your mind to your focus is incredibly important during visualization, because you will often find your mind wandering from the details of your visualized environment. This makes your practice less effective.
So not only should you relax before your visualization session, but you should meditate in general in order to improve the efficacy of your sessions in the future.
How To Recreate The Environment
While it would be impossible to perfectly recreate the appropriate environment to mentally practice in, you can do a pretty good job if you follow the right process.
Remember to include as many senses as you can; sights, sounds, smells, and physical sensations should be possible in most cases, and if you can add in taste, good for you.
When you begin creating the environment for your visualization, start by not including yourself. Imagine the scenery, including primarily sights and sounds first. When you have that in mind, move to a third person view, including yourself in the environment. Once you have established your place in this “world”, move on to a first person view.
From there, you can begin visualizing whatever it is you want to practice.
Include Realistic Obstacles
Finally, make sure you include realistic obstacles in your visualization. If you make it easy for yourself, your practice will be useless.
For example, if you are trying to visualize yourself cooking a healthy meal, imagine that you are missing an ingredient and you need to improvise. What would you do?
By including obstacles, you can stimulate creative solutions to whatever problems you might face in trying to accomplish your goals.
Allowing your mind to focus on something other than the present moment has both risks and possible rewards. When you allow your mind to wander arbitrarily, it often leads to unhappiness.
On the other hand, using visualization techniques properly can be a useful form of practicing certain things.
How often do you think you let your mind wander? How does it make you feel?