Explained: the scientific benefits of daydreaming about a holiday

Many of us are missing the ritual and fun associated with imagining our next holiday. Experts say that’s only natural.

A recent Carnival survey of more than 1,200 Australians revealed that, in addition to pining for holiday travel, many of us are missing the sense of anticipation that grows in the months and weeks leading up to a confirmed departure. Psychologists say that’s because thinking about and planning for the future – whether holidays or other important events – has important psychological and emotional benefits.

“Being able to imagine the future is fundamental to our psychological health and well-being,” says Amanda J. Barnier, Professor of Cognitive Science at Macquarie University.

Barnier is one of several Australian academics working to understand how we think about the future and why doing so can benefit us. She explains, one reason imagining the future feels good is because it reminds us of happiness in the past. “Research shows that imagination basically takes the building blocks of past experiences, combines them in new ways and then pitches them forward in time,” she says.

“Part of the pleasure of planning a holiday, especially for people who love holidays and go on them regularly, is remembering what’s been fantastic in the past and then combining those memories in new ways to predict the enjoyment they’ll experience in the future.”

According to Associate Professor Muireann Irish, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Sydney, several regions of the human brain – which she calls the “default network” – fire up and interact whenever we think about the future, remember the past or imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. She suggests having an active default network – and daydreaming regularly – can help us with general problem-solving in our everyday lives.

“Other research suggests that our sense of identity is enhanced when we daydream,” Irish writes in The Conversation. “By continuously remembering events from our past and envisaging what our futures might be like, we form a stronger sense of who we are as individuals.”

Barnier says she’s not surprised that many Australians miss making holiday plans. “Remembering the past and imagining the future based on the past gives people a sense of meaning as well as security in their sense of self and place in the world,” she notes. “Right now, we’re living through almost unimaginable times, and being able to plan for the future can provide us with a real sense of psychological reassurance.”

Her advice? “Don’t stop daydreaming about the future or making plans. You might not be able to set a precise date for your next holiday – but there’s still great benefit to be had from thinking about it in detail and looking forward to it.”

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