Friday, 3 January 2014

Daydreaming can help you create a better future

Over the Christmas break I went to the cinema to see the new Ben Stiller movie 'The Secret Life of Walter Mitty'. I had high expectations of the film not only because I think Ben Stiller is one of the comedy greats our generation, but also because, even though I not seen the original 1947 film, I have often heard the phrase 'He/she is a bit of a Walter Mitty character' when referring to someone who is perceived as a fantasist or teller of tall stories. In fact I have used the phrase myself! So I was curious to see what this 'Walter Mitty character' thing is all about.

In one of the opening scenes to the film Mitty fantasises about rescuing the pet dog of a woman he is attracted to at work. Throughout the early part of the film he continues to enter into daydreams or fantasies, often blotting out what's going on around him in the real world, but ultimately he actually does live out his fantasies in a weird and wonderful plot that sees him travelling to Greenland, Iceland and Afghanistan in search of a missing photographic negative.

But this is not a film review, in case you were wondering. I believe that there is a serious point to the story. Not of Walter Mitty himself, and I won't spoil the film for you if you have not yet seen it. But that the concept of daydreaming or fantasising is worthy of further exploration

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of 'daydream' is: 'a series of pleasant thoughts that distract one's attention from the present'. According to Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, a person's mind is uninhibited when daydreaming, allowing the brain to make new associations and connections, both physically at a neurological level but also conceptually in terms of ideas creation. In other words, when individuals daydream and engage in abstract or make-believe thinking there is great potential that the act may give birth to creative ideas. Schooler suggests that "if our minds do not wander we would be greatly obstructed by what we are doing right now."

I believe that harnessing daydreaming in the right way can be hugely beneficial precisely for the reasons that Schooler identifies. That is it can lead to creativity, ambition, goal setting and ultimately success. Read any self help book and it will talk about 'visualising' and I don't believe that constructive daydreaming is any different from this. As legendary boxer Mohamed Ali once said: "Champions aren't made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them - a desire, a dream, a vision." He also said "The man who has no imagination has no wings." I've read stories about successful golfers who visualise the entire round before they play it. So why can't we, as charity professionals, learn from this and use some of these techniques ourselves?

So how about a later New Year's resolution, to spend more time daydreaming or visualising? It is actually possible to see the past, present and future by effective visualisation. 

Try this simple exercise, when you are relaxed and on your own (preferably!): 

1. Close your eyes and think of the future. Raise your right hand and point in the direction of the future as you see it. Open your eyes and observe the direction you are pointing.
2. Close your eyes again, with your right hand in position raise your left hand, and point in the direction of the past as you see it. Open your eyes again and observe where both of your hands are pointing.
3. Put your hands on your lap and close your eyes again.  
4. Imagine a straight line between your past and your future. This is your time line.
5. Imagine yourself doing something pleasant in the recent past. Picture this in your head. Can you see yourself as if you are an observer, or can you see this through your own eyes? Try to see the scene as if you are an observer, see if you can see your face or the back of your head. 
6. Now do the same in the future by moving along the timeline.
7. Once you have that image in your head, now move yourself back and forth from the past into the future.
8. Once you have done that a few times, imagine that you have a birds eye view of the you in the past and the you in the future. 
9. Now come back to the present and open your eyes.

The human mind has no boundaries. Once you have practiced this kind of visualisation, you can improve the power of your creativity by imagining that you have a remote control that will allow you to change the brightness, contract, colour, volume, etc. of what you can see. This can increase the intensity of your experience, and make it seem ever more real.

Now I know this kind of thing is not for everyone, and some people simply cannot see pictures in their heads, no matter how hard they try. But as it is the New Year, why not give it a try? After all what is there to lose? If you can imagine seeing yourself in the past doing something as mundane as doing the ironing, cleaning your teeth, whatever and also imagine seeing yourself doing something similarly mundane in the future, why would it not be possible to do this for something far more important, like what job you see yourself doing in a year's time?

Have fun, daydream and be a bit more like Walter Mitty! Happy new Year!

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