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Daydreaming Makes People Unhappy. What About Kids?

By Heather Turgeon |

Daydreaming and happiness

Daydreaming makes you blue?

Harvard happiness researchers Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert published findings today in the journal Science that suggest people are less happy when they let their minds wander.

2,200 subjects in the study, ages 18 to 88, used an iPhone app that randomly asked them what they were doing during the day, what they were thinking about, and to rate their level of happiness throughout. Here’s what they found:

Forty seven percent of the time, people reported thinking about something other than what they were doing in the moment. That act of mind-wandering was linked to a lower level of happiness. And using a time-lag adjustment, the researchers say they confirmed that the mind-wandering was more likely to be the cause, not the result of unhappiness.

Daydreaming – it’s an inherently human activity. When I think about my two year old son and his little budding capacity for conscious thought, I want him to have plenty of time to think and create stories in his head.

Creativity and abstract thought require taking ourselves out of the moment to conjure up another reality — another possible solution or scenario that isn’t right in front of us. When I carve out time for my son to just play and imagine, that’s the little brain skill I hope he’s working on.

Daydreaming is related, but I think I see the difference. As an adult, when my mind wanders, it’s usually to something worrisome — I’m hung up on something that happened in the past or something I’m preoccupied with for the future. When my son’s mind wanders, I’m pretty sure it’s to a gripping mental image of an airplane take-off, or an episode of Bob the Builder.

As the researchers reported, one of the things that makes people happiest is being engaged in conversation. Hard to do when you’re not really there. I think it’s because we’re most satisfied when we’re connected to people, including our kids.

Image: flickr/kevindooley

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About Heather Turgeon


Heather Turgeon

Heather Turgeon is currently writing the book The Happy Sleeper (Penguin, 2014). She's a therapist-turned-writer who authors the Science of Kids column for Babble. A northeasterner at heart, Heather lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two little ones. Read bio and latest posts → Read Heather's latest posts →

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0 thoughts on “Daydreaming Makes People Unhappy. What About Kids?

  1. JesBelle says:

    I’ve always been a big-time daydreamer. I have to say, it made me very happy as a kid, but far less so as an adult. I think the reason is that when I was a kid, all the stuff I was dreaming about still seemed possible.

  2. Michele Moore - Happy1 says:

    You are very right: “when my mind wanders, it’s usually to something worrisome — I’m hung up on something that happened in the past or something I’m preoccupied with for the future.”

    Worries do interrupt our thoughts and happiness!

    It’s important to emphasize that how we feel about what we are doing affects our happiness and our levels of attention.

    When we are enjoying what we are doing we pay attention to it.

    When we don’t particularly enjoy what we are doing our mind wanders.

    Our happiness research showed: Our Focus of Attention Determines Our Feelings.

    When we focus our time and attention on things we like and find pleasurable we feel energized, enthusiastic and excited.

    When we focus on things we think are bad we feel sad, angry, anxious or dissatisfied.

    For more see: and

    MicheleMoore- Happy1 ~

  3. [...] Daydreaming Makes People Unhappy. What About Kids? – Babble (blog) Posted by admin On November – 14 – 2010 [...]

  4. Perfect Dad says:

    I’ve the exact opposite of what you say. I daydream about success, about having fun, about doing well. If I am preparing for a speech, I imagine myself speaking smoothly, the audience lapping it up. When I make investments I imagine them turning out perfectly. When I negotiate I imagine myself bringing the other party to my side, gaining agreement, meeting all their concerns and having them happy with the deal we come up with even as I am happy. When I give an Aikido class, I imagine that the class will expand the understanding of the group and each person will leave with the feeling of “Wow, I never saw it that way before.”

    I almost never dwell on negative thoughts. Although I do worry sometimes, and become “snappy”, it’s not from daydreaming. It’s from an underlying feeling, when things are not unfolding as I hoped. I still imagine and pursue positive trajectories, but the worry is not part of my daydreams.

    Perfecting Parenthood

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