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The Ups and Downs of Daydreaming


I confess, I was a bit of a daydreamer from childhood through early adulthood. Mostly, my daydreams were about romantic relationships. As I grew older and had more control over my life (and more knowledge about love), those daydreams mostly subsided. I do recall both loving and hating them. Loving the hits of dopamine conjured up by happy endings and hating that my real life wasn’t living up to my fantasy one.

I hadn’t thought much about daydreams until I read Daydreaming’s dark side: the compulsive, complex fantasy disorder that dominates some people’s daily lives, and started thinking about how similar they were to food binges. On the one hand, in small doses both can bring us great joy and lift our spirits. On the other, when they rule us instead of the other way around, boy, can we get into some serious trouble. 

Giulia Poerio, PhD, associate lecturer at the University of Sussex, says that research shows “our ability to mentally escape the present can also boost creativity, problem-solving and planning, and provide an antidote to loneliness,” that daydreaming occupies “an average of around 30% of the time if you randomly probe people,” and that it can act as a “source of pleasure and a way to relieve boredom.” All well and good so far.

Then there’s “maladaptive daydreaming” which gets in the way of healthy functioning for those who spend “at least half their waking hours immersed in deliberately constructed fantasy worlds.” Eventually, the fantasies can become compulsive and addictive and people dive into their fictionalized lives to escape their real ones. They may want to stop dreaming but have difficulty doing so and fail repeatedly.

As with other addictions, daydreaming can create problems at school and work and in relationships as compulsive fantasizers withdraw from reality. Poerio explains that it becomes maladaptive “when it becomes difficult to control, when time to daydream takes precedence over real life, and when the compulsion to daydream interferes with important life goals and relationships.” It becomes a coping mechanism, a crutch.

Doesn’t this sound like the way some people use food? They’d rather stay home and binge on food than go to a party, withdraw from painful reality by finding comfort and solace in sugar and carbs, and eventually the only way they can feel okay is via the pleasure the receive from eating. This is not to judge either daydreamers or binge-eaters, but to say both are fine if we’re not dependent on them to feel good. Consider if daydreaming is a major reality escape hatch for you and what you want to do about it.