While loneliness causes negative effects on the mood and mind of an individual, it is also thought to be an adaptive emotion. Loneliness motivates people to reconnect socially, and therefore promotes species survival. Behaviors that promote social contact are the easiest way to remove feelings of loneliness, however, social connection is not always available to lonely people.
In a study published in Cognition and Emotion, researchers examined if daydreaming about one’s significant other was enough to restore social connectedness after induced loneliness. Daydreaming about one’s significant other allows an individual to create a meaningful social interaction in their mind, and possibly alleviate feelings of loneliness.
Researchers also included a “helping request” (where participants were asked to assist with a task) at the end of the study, due to previous research which suggests that increased social connectedness results in increased helping behavior.
One hundred and forty three participants (students and staff) were recruited from a UK university and were asked to complete a loneliness survey, but they were all given “bogus feedback” and told they ranked as “much more lonely than average.” This acted as the ‘loneliness induction’, which was meant to control feelings of loneliness.
Participants were randomly assigned to daydream either about a significant other (social daydreamers) or a scenario that did not involve interaction with anyone else (non-social daydreamers), or to complete a memory task (control). Then, they rated their desire to connect with others and completed a helping request, where they were asked to indicate how many pages of data they were willing to help code on a sign-up sheet. Participants rated their feelings “before and after the loneliness induction, and after the experimental task.”
Social daydreamers showed heightened feelings of social connection, even though both types of daydreamers had overall positive effects. They also indicated less of a need to interact with others after daydreaming. Daydreaming about a non-social pleasant scenario demonstrated more positive emotions than the memory task, though researchers believe that to be due to the satisfying nature of imagination. In addition, social daydreamers were more likely to help with the data encoding task than the other two groups — they volunteered to do two pages more on average.
“Our findings support the proposal that social daydreams can replenish connectedness by providing an imaginary substitute for significant others when they are not immediately available. There is evidence that daydreams may function like this in daily life but the present study provides more direct evidence for the causal role of daydreaming about significant others in maintaining and sustaining connectedness,” the researchers wrote.
While daydreaming has been regarded as a harmful activity for the idle mind, this study demonstrates that it serves a socially fulfilling purpose. Future research includes using social daydreaming as therapy, where it could foster more feelings of love and belonging, and the effects of social daydreaming on long term social interactions.