Need one more thing to worry about? You are probably daydreaming wrong

·2-min read
<span>Photograph: Justin Paget/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Justin Paget/Getty Images

There’s something else for us to worry about (definitely what this summer was lacking): daydreaming. According to the New Scientist, the pleasant reverie in which you imagine yourself in the Desert Island Discs studio modestly explaining your myriad achievements to Lauren Laverne might be bad for you.

“Normal” daydreaming is still fine: it fosters creative and lateral thinking, and letting the mind wander could enhance our capacity to learn. But when daydreams prevent you from engaging with life and interfere with your ability to make and maintain relationships, work or learn, researchers call them “maladaptive”.

Maladaptive daydreamers use fantasy as a release from stressful thoughts and a difficult present; loneliness, distress and boredom are triggers. Given all that, I don’t suppose you’ll be surprised to hear maladaptive daydreaming seems to be becoming more prevalent. A 2020 study covering 70 countries found participants were more likely to struggle with intense, all-consuming daydreaming in lockdown than during normal life. A 2021 survey of 6,000 Italians found that 17% were atypically preoccupied with their fantasy life. You wouldn’t bet against it reaching epidemic proportions as 2022 staggers on.

I wonder if maladaptive is the right characterisation. Who are you calling maladapted? Isn’t retreating to a gentler imaginary world an entirely appropriate way to cope with financial and ecological catastrophe, war playing out around an actual nuclear power plant, Covid, monkeypox and langya (the new zoonotic virus on the block, do keep up)? The typical themes of maladaptive daydreams are, apparently, “love, friendship, self-idealisation, social support and imaginary family”. It would be nicer if we all felt we had those in real life, of course, but who can blame anyone for dreaming of them as the world burns?

I’m about ready to give up on reality and surrender to my daydreams, but before I do, I need to train myself to have nicer ones. Mine are all of death, illness, destruction and the bitter settling of scores; day-mares, really. Imagining things are even worse than they actually are: now that’s really maladaptive.

  • Emma Beddington is a Guardian columnist