I can’t sleep lately, and that’s because I can’t stop daydreaming. I’m in bed, staring at the stars, pleading with my brain to stop already. There’s a small skylight in my bedroom, so I can see the specks of light that shine the night through. An airplane or satellite sometimes crosses, but mostly it is the stars, and on this cold November Colorado night, they are very bright. I appreciate their intensity and the fact that they don’t fade, because I have a long night ahead of me, into the insomnia-created vault of time, and I like their company, their fiery energy burning with my own.
I keep as still as I can, but my mind is in constant motion: I am manufacturing stories of a different future, one filled with less turmoil and more peace. More kindness. More laughter. I am daydreaming scenarios of peaceful revolution, something akin to the best parts of the ’60s and ’70s, which although had moments of violence and trouble, led to major changes in civil rights, women’s rights, environmental protection. Plus, all the good music! The feeling of real love and change in the air!
It’s strange, I think, but it’s true – these are the scenarios that fill my brain night after night as the stars wheel across the sky.
If we admit what we daydream about, we admit our deepest desires. We dream about what we want most – or what we lack. As one of those great philosophers put it, “Our daydreams tell us the extent to which we are not living.”
When I was younger, I daydreamed about finding love — because love is what I most wanted. Later, I dreamed about book success, because that was my big professional dream, and having the respect of people I admired meant a great deal. I dreamed about heroically saving people – according to studies, most people do. I also daydreamed of scary things – about my kids getting injured, for example, because that’s what I most feared, and my daydreams were a way of predicting bad outcomes and then avoiding them.
Daydreams do serious work – studies show they reduce stress, increase creativity, forecast dangers, and help us dream up possibilities. So, I can clearly see what my brain is doing.
A while ago, I asked friends and family this question: What percentage of time, during your awake hours, do you daydream?
Like Walter Mitty, I felt I was spending too much time in my head. I wanted to balance my reality with that of others.
My friends offered up figures and stories. From many, I got a simple percentage: 5% was the low, 90% the high. Some people gave me numbers: Twenty minutes a day, six hours a day. My writer friends daydreamed more than my non-writer friends. Some people give me their mathematical computations: “I’d give myself five minutes an hour for twelve waking hours, plus a good 20 minutes before falling asleep, so that’s . . .80 minutes = n/100 x 720 minutes = 11.11%.”
Many people wanted to define daydreaming. Between 15 and 30%, wrote one friend, depending on whether I mean all non-task thinking, or the dreamy-dreaming of finding Mr. Right. Another wrote, “Hmm . . . Plain ol’ daydreaming, with no other purpose than to delight and entertain the brain, as opposed to, say, working-on-novel daydreaming?” Someone else emailed me, “If daydreaming means being in an unfocused non-alpha-wave brain state, then I’m there quite often. But if daydreaming is something we do while we’re bored, then I’m certain I never daydream, because I’m never bored.”
Many people apologized for the amount of time they spent daydreaming: “I am a Fantasy Nerd. I spend 80% of my awake hours daydreaming, and I daydream no matter what else I’m doing. Is this a bad thing?”
Everyone seemed a little uncertain. What are these intangible, emotion-laden scenarios, these stories that make up so much of our lives?
While I’m watching the stars, I wonder why I’m watching the stars. Why all these daydreams that keep me up at night? I beg my brain to let me sleep and have night time dreams. Maybe, I consider, I’m just really sad. I can’t help it – my mind floats to scenarios in which people take to the streets, priorities are re-arranged, real change occurs, children aren’t worried about being shot or bombed. People are not falling in love with me (a daydream that marked my 20s), people seem to be falling in love with each other and the planet.
Maybe this is what growing older is about. The heart expands. As they say, you “get better or bitter with age,” and most people I know are getting better. Softer. They care more about what’s going on for other people. Our hearts are roomy. Perhaps it’s because the years of career and family are over, and there’s room to think beyond the immediate.
I even find myself daydreaming of anonymous people reading this essay, and I daydream them thinking things like, This sounds familiar. I know about fear, and daydreams, and hopes. Then I wonder what they daydream about. Do their dreams protect them against a cold core? Help identify what they care about? Give them ideas for a path forward, towards a kinder and more peaceful life? And I wonder what is wrong or right about that, and whether simple imaginary dreams can show us a real way.
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