Growing up, I was mostly an average kid. I had one or two close friends from kindergarten through high school. I had decent grades, I enjoyed recess like everyone else, and I attended quite a few friends’ birthday parties at the local laser tag arena. Yet there was one label that always stuck with me, as handed down by my mom and teachers:
“You’re so quiet.”
It’s true that I didn’t always speak up. That’s because I was usually too busy thinking. Rather than making small talk, I would doodle on scraps of notebook paper, curl up with a book, or let my imagination run wild. In other words, I’d daydream. And I’ve never stopped.
We live in a fast-paced world. We’re told that we don’t have time to daydream. While our mind is off wandering, opportunities are slipping through our fingers.
But what if daydreaming is the opportunity? What if those quiet moments to yourself are what make you a better and more productive person?
What Daydreaming Looks Like on the Outside
Daydreaming can happen anywhere, at any time. It strikes in the middle of class or a meeting at the office. It hits when you’re sitting with your laptop at a coffee shop, trying to finish an assignment. It might even happen when you’re watching a movie or something on TV. Suddenly you find yourself doodling in the margins of your notebook instead of taking notes. Or staring idly out the window.
Many people, especially extroverts, may look at this behavior and call it “boredom.” It’s true that feeling bored can be a stimulus for daydreaming. But think about it: all your brain is doing is switching from paying attention to something that’s happening on the outside to something that’s happening on the inside. You’re still thinking and processing—but it’s not obvious to anyone else.
Why Introverts Daydream
Swiss psychologist Carl Jung was the first to make a distinction between introverts and extroverts around the turn of the century. It’s no surprise that he also came up with a handy way to describe what the introvert’s inner world can be like. In Conversations with Carl Jung and Reactions from Ernest Jones, he explained, “When you observe the world, you see people; you see houses; you see the sky; you see tangible objects. But when you observe yourself within, you see moving images, a world of images generally known as fantasies.”
The parallel nature of Jung’s comment isn’t an accident. Daydreaming isn’t just an escape from reality—it’s how introverts process the world. It explains why we tend to daydream so much.
Three Benefits of Daydreaming
As a lifelong daydreamer, I’ve noticed three benefits of having an “idle” imagination:
1. Fantasies can be a source of creativity and problem-solving. We live in a culture that thrives on socializing and group brainstorming. But some of the best ideas aren’t born in a noisy boardroom–they come quietly into the world when you’re alone at your desk, letting your mind wander. Indeed, visionary Steve Wozniak, a self-identified introvert, worked by himself for months and created what would eventually become the Apple computer. In his book, iWoz: Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, Co-Founded Apple, and Had Fun Doing It, Wozniak makes a strong case for working alone:
“Most inventors and engineers I’ve met are like me—they’re shy and they live in their heads. They’re almost like artists. In fact, the very best of them are artists. And artists work best alone—best outside of corporate environments, best where they can control an invention’s design without a lot of other people designing it for marketing or some other committee. I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has ever been invented by committee… I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.”
2. Daydreams build empathy. When you dip into your mind, you can do more than solve abstract problems. When allowed a little solitude, the act of daydreaming can help you appreciate what life is like for other people. You might find yourself thinking about your friends, family, or coworkers, and imagining what’s going on with them. In our musings, we let our guard down, and it’s easier to think of others instead of worrying so much about ourselves. J.K. Rowling believes that exploring her imagination has given her great empathy. In her 2008 Harvard commencement address, she said:
“In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it [imagination] is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.”
3. Letting your thoughts wander can help you destress. There’s a handy feature on your PC that lets you defragment or declutter your hard drive. This process frees up storage space and gets rid of unwanted files so your system operates more efficiently. In some ways, the human brain is no different. Research shows that when you zone out, you may be able to think most deeply about the big picture. In doing so, you can gain perspective on issues that are dogging you and ultimately destress.
Far from being “idle,” giving yourself over to your imagination could be one of the most productive things you do. Don’t let anyone tell you that daydreaming wastes your time.
Image credit: Sjale/Shutterstock
Read this: Being Quiet Is Not a Character Flaw