Happy Thoughts: 4 Steps To Thinking For Pleasure

We all carry around an instrument that can make us happy, if we practice.

We all carry around an instrument that can make us happy, if we practice.

Getting lost in positive thoughts about past, present and future helps us escape from ourselves and boosts our well-being, just like a good novel.

Unfortunately, most people find it hard to enjoy their own thoughts.

One infamous example of this is the study that found that most people choose electric shocks over sitting quietly for 15 minutes and thinking.

The reason is that most people are not that good at it, explains Dr Erin Westgate, first author of a new study exploring how we can all improve our daydreaming.

The first problem is that pleasant daydreams are difficult, she says:

“This is part of our cognitive toolkit that’s underdeveloped, and it’s kind of sad.

You have to be the actor, director, screenwriter and audience of a mental performance.

Even though it looks like you’re doing nothing, it’s cognitively taxing.”

The second barrier is that people intuitively go about day dreaming in the wrong way.

When instructed to think meaningful thoughts, people do not enjoy it, which stymied Dr Westgate until she looked at what people were thinking about:

“We’re fairly clueless.

We don’t seem to know what to think about to have a positive experience.

I was so confused.

Then she took a look at the topics the participants reported thinking about.

It was heavy stuff.

It didn’t seem to occur to them that they could use the time to enjoy their own thoughts.”

4 steps to positive daydreaming

Instead, in another part of the research, people were prompted with subjects to daydream about.

They were given these examples:

  • “A specific memory you would enjoy thinking about (e.g., your first kiss, a family event, an academic or athletic accomplishment).”
  • “Something in the future you are looking forward to (e.g., an upcoming social occasion, date, meeting with a friend, or vacation).”
  • “Imagining a future accomplishment (e.g., your graduation day, your wedding day, your first day at a great job).”

The key is to think thoughts that are both pleasant and meaningful.

The results showed that people enjoyed daydreaming 50 percent more when given specific subjects than when they thought about what they wanted.

So, the first key to positive daydreaming is to have topics ready, says Dr Westgate:

“This is something all of us can do once you have the concept.

We give 4- and 5-year-olds these instructions, and it makes sense to them.”

The second key is practice, she says:

“This is hard for everybody.

There’s no good evidence that some types of people are simply better thinkers.

I’m the world’s worst person at this: I would definitely rather have the electric shock.

But knowing why it can be hard and what makes it easier really makes a difference.

The encouraging part is we can all get better.”

The third is to avoid making plans while daydreaming, she says:

“People say they enjoy planning, but when we test it, they do not.”

The fourth is to choose the right time:

“The next time you’re walking, instead of pulling out your phone, try it.”

Thinking for pleasure is something that sets us apart, says Dr Westgate:

“It defines our humanity.

It allows us to imagine new realities.

But that kind of thinking requires practice.”

The study was published in the journal Emotion (Westgate et al., 2021).

Author: Jeremy Dean

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology. He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book "Making Habits, Breaking Habits" (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks.

Get free email updates

Join the free PsyBlog mailing list. No spam, ever.