Is It Good or Bad to Zone Out, Space Out, or Daydream?

Whether you call it zoning out, spacing out, or daydreaming, we spend up to 47% of our waking lives letting our minds wander. This week, the Savvy Psychologist explains why mind wandering happens, when it’s good, when it’s bad--and how it might even lead to your own "Eureka!" moment.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #36

What's the Downside?

And all this mind wandering, it turns out, isn’t so great. As the same study notes, “the ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.” Specifically, they found that not focusing on what we’re doing tends to go along with feeling unhappy, and time-lag data found that mind wandering may be causing that very unhappiness.

Their conclusion? A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Looks like the mindfulness trend of “being in the now,” not to mention thousands of years of religious and meditation traditions, may be on to something. 

In addition to making us unhappy, mind wandering also makes us forget what we’re supposed to be doing. In a 2010 study, researchers found that the more your daydream differs from the current moment, the worse your task amnesia.

In the study, participants learned a list of words, were asked to think about memories from their life, and then were quizzed on the original list of words. Participants tended to forget more words when they were asked to think about their parents’ home versus their current home, and when they thought about an international vacation versus a domestic vacation. Basically, the further-flung the memory through space or time, the greater the amnesic effect.

Dare to Dream

However, other researchers disagree. Drs. Jonathan Schooler and Jonathan Smallwood are two of the world experts on mind wandering.  Dr. Smallwood reminds us of how lucky we are to be able to mind-wander—in an interview in the New York Times, he says, “Imagine if you couldn’t escape mentally from a traffic jam.”

They’ve also found that mind wandering facilitates creativity. In a 2012 study, the two researchers asked four groups of participants to engage in a creativity task. One group did the task again right away, but the three other groups took a 12-minute break. Some rested quietly, others did a difficult memory task, but the final group did a boring task designed to elicit mind wandering.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.