Once upon a time I met a stranger and in my mind we lived an entire life together. Not just one life, but many lives. Not just once, but many times.
This particular stranger was a lawyer in Portland. I’d come to his office because someone told me there was going to be a protest. There was no protest. I ended up sitting in a corporate conference room with this lawyer in his sage-green fleece vest. We talked about the pipeline that was getting laid near tribal lands in Standing Rock. Beneath his justifications, I could sense a white man’s deep sorrow for the crimes of his country. That sorrow was the part of him I imagined building a life with.
My conversation with this lawyer lasted only an hour. But by the time I left, I’d already begun to spin an elaborate fantasy about how our single conversation might change his life. It would force a reckoning with his conscience. He’d remember why he went into law in the first place. He would look up my website! The next time he came to New York, we would have a tryst at a swank Midtown hotel. Maybe the one with the burger joint behind the red velvet curtain. He’d leave his marriage. (The internet told me he was married. But no matter! I was married, too.) The rapid current of my daydream flowed easily around our spouses like two boulders in a river. We would move into a Craftsman bungalow painted the same shade of sage green as his fleece vest. He would save the world by fighting environmental injustice. I would save the world by writing literary essays. We’d watch prestige television once a week. On all the other nights, we wouldn’t need TV; we’d have too much to talk about.
These daydreams occupied the better portion of my flight back east. Back home, they filled all the crevices of my domestic labors. They followed me for weeks, as I walked along the damp sidewalks of Brooklyn, past brownstones whose lit windows exposed perfect lives in which no one needed to dream about living anywhere else. Which was my ultimate daydream: imagining a life in which I no longer daydreamed at all.
I’ve spent my whole life daydreaming. It embarrasses me to think of tallying the hours. It feels like ingratitude. It feels like infidelity. It’s often been about infidelity. I’ve daydreamed while walking, while running, while drinking, while smoking—sitting in the Boston cold, seventeen years old, daydreams sprouting like so many weeds from the cracked sidewalk of a broken heart. I’ve daydreamed on every form of transport—something about commuting feels conducive to daydreaming, the pockets of time in between our commitments, and the fact of the body in motion, neither here nor there, available for an elsewhere. I’ve daydreamed to music and in silence, in solitude and in company. It’s hardly exceptional. Studies have found that daydreaming accounts for between a quarter and a half of our waking hours, that we do it every few minutes, during nearly every activity except sex. Eric Klinger, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, claims that daydreams make up about half the average person’s thoughts.
My first daydreams were crushes. In one fantasy, the blond baseball player from my physics class walked up to the front of the room and announced—against a backdrop of velocity and momentum equations—that he wanted to go to prom with me. “She might seem quiet,” he would tell the class. “But once you get to know her, she really has so much to say.” Sometimes I’d revise midstream: He wouldn’t say, She really has so much to say. That was something my middle-aged mom would say. He’d say, She’s pretty awesome.
In college, when I worked part-time as an assistant to an immigration lawyer, I daydreamed about making an important discovery that would help secure asylum for one of our clients. I would rush into the courtroom with neatly highlighted papers. The family would be saved. The courtroom would react with hushed voices: Who was that . . . ?
When I restricted my eating, my daydreams grew more restricted, too: they started to be almost entirely about food. I looked up restaurant menus and imagined eating all the dishes they listed: chocolate bread pudding with rum-caramelized bananas, or Ritz cracker–crusted scrod with herbed potatoes. My hunger was so bottomless it could be satisfied only in fantasies.
Near the end of my marriage, I spent more and more time in my fantasies. My daydreams were imagined affairs, or else counterfactuals in which I’d married someone else. As the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips argues, “Any ideal, any preferred world, is a way of asking, what kind of world are we living in that makes this the solution . . . What would the symptom have to be for this to be the self-cure?” My daydreams were the destruction, and the oxygen. They were a whispered diagnosis, a truth serum.
After we eventually separated, I looked back on my daydreams with a mixture of gratitude and shame. Had they been toxic evasions, a way of disappearing into fantasy to avoid the work of saving my marriage? Or were they necessary articulations of desire—something less like cowardice, and more like a summons?
Over dinner with strangers in Rochester—on a work trip, a few months after my eventual separation—I brought up daydreaming because I was desperate to change the subject. The subject was our actual lives. My hosts were asking about my husband and our young daughter. I didn’t want to tell them we were getting divorced. I was tired of saying, It’s for the best, or, It’s very painful, in a perfectly calibrated tone that suggested both sadness and composure.
My hosts were two professors who had been married for several decades. The woman was very talkative. Her husband was not. I started doing that thing where I projected unrealistic levels of domestic bliss onto this pair while simultaneously suspecting I wouldn’t have been able to stand being married to either one of them.
At a certain point, I thought, Fuck it, and started asking them about their daydreams. The talkative woman was adamant: she didn’t have daydreams. Did I? How could I possibly have enough time to daydream? She certainly didn’t.
“I don’t know,” I said lamely. “I do it on the subway?”
At this point in my life, I was the single mother of a sixteen-month-old baby, with a full-time job as a professor and another full-time job as a writer and a third full-time job as a Person Getting Divorced, so I didn’t necessarily have a lot of free time. But I found time for daydreaming anyway. I’ve never not found time for daydreaming.
The woman in Rochester nailed my shame precisely. Or rather, one of my shames: the shame of indolence, leisure, privilege, and waste.
She asked, “What do you daydream about?”
I had a perverse impulse to say the most embarrassing thing. I said sometimes I daydreamed about winning a Pulitzer. The talkative woman said, “There you go! I would never feel entitled to do that.” Which made me feel ashamed in an entirely different way.
In the midst of our fervent back-and-forth, the woman’s quiet husband said, very quietly, “I daydream all the time.”
He spoke so softly I barely heard him. But his wife heard him. She asked him—as she’d asked me—what he daydreamed about. He said nothing. She said, “Go on, you can say. I don’t mind.” He fiddled with the handle of his coffee cup. “No really,” she said. “You can say.”
But he didn’t say, and I was glad. I wanted him to keep his daydreams for himself. I wanted him to have something that was just his own.
My shame about daydreaming is the shame of solipsism and self-centered fantasy, the shame of turning from the banality of daily life toward the hollow calories of wish fulfillment, the shame of preferring the hypothetical to the actual.
In high school, the shame of my crushes was mainly a function of their asymmetry: wanting a boy so much more than he wanted me. But as I got older, the kernel of my shame migrated a few degrees to the left. It was less about my crushes as inherently asymmetrical (sometimes they were reciprocated), and more about my crushes as reductive: the fantasy relationship is entirely composed of revelation and crisis, all inflection point rather than stasis, none of the ordinary, uncinematic moments from which closeness is actually forged.
On Wild Minds, an online forum for people who struggle with excessive daydreaming, a thirty-year-old woman who had been having the same daydream about dating a rock star since her early teens put up a post titled “Killing your main character?” She wrote,
Sometimes I feel like the daydream is trying to break through into the front of my mind so I took action and killed my character. She (me) died and my daydreaming stopped for a couple of weeks . . . Now I have a new ‘me’ in daydreams and . . . I’ve spent three days lying on my bed literally just daydreaming. I know if I just kill another character in my head another will show up.
My shame attaches to the persistence of my daydreams as much as their content. It rises from their whack-a-mole constancy: no matter what I have, I’ll always fantasize about something else. My daydreaming habit tethers an impulse to its punishment: boundless freedom alongside the shame of wanting this freedom. I force myself to go hours without a fantasy, then finally indulge one, tip into its soft unmade bed; then force myself out of bed again, back to the work of the real.
Restraint. Indulgence. Punishment. This triptych of impulses has structured my relationship to desire for so long: with food, booze, men. The shame of fantasy has always felt related to my bottomless appetite for sweet things, for the dessert before the dessert, for dessert for breakfast, for desserts that contain other desserts: bowls of melted peanut butter ice cream with a peanut butter cookie batter swirl. The spun sugar of fantasy never leaves you satisfied. It leaves you feeling as if you ate too much, and also nothing at all. Which is the shame of the daydream: too much, and nothing at all.
A few weeks after my husband and I separated, my friend Emma came over to the dark railroad sublet I was renting with my daughter. It was the middle of winter. The apartment got very little light. Another friend called it our birth canal because it was long and narrow: a little bit claustrophobic, but also a threshold.
Emma was also at a threshold. After spending most of her adult life in New York, she was moving to Los Angeles. She told me she was having a lot of daydreams about what her life in California would be like. Even though she knew her daydreams wouldn’t come true precisely as she imagined, they were a useful placeholder, more inviting than a blank space. These fantasies helped her believe in the possibility of another life. They granted it texture.
Between 1983 and 1985, the artist Jenny Holzer debuted her Survival Series: a set of slogans displayed on large electronic billboards in public spaces. My favorite, which has since graced postcards, condom wrappers, moving vans, and marble benches, is this one: IN A DREAM YOU SAW A WAY TO SURVIVE AND YOU WERE FULL OF JOY.
One of my deepest beliefs about life is that it will never play out exactly as we imagine. If that’s true, then every daydream is a little death—a foreclosure of possibility rather than its conjuring. But Emma offered another way of seeing this: the daydream was never the destination; it was just a path to get there. The daydreams I’d had during the end of my marriage weren’t prophecies. They just built a bridge off the edge of a cliff.
Over dinner one night—at the cusp of summer, six months into my separation—my friend Tara mused that perhaps people fall into two camps: they daydream about possible things, or impossible ones. We were at her apartment, sitting in her cluttered kitchen around a rough-hewn wooden table spread with bowls of lamb stew and saffron rice, hunks of beetroot bread and buffalo-milk cheese, a peach tart we’d all ravaged. It was a night of excess. Conversation without edges. My sobriety breathed the fumes of everyone else’s white-wine buzz.
I’d been telling Tara about my own daydreams—how they’d almost always been about romance, and the shame I felt at that, as if it testified to a certain poverty of imagination. When I asked her what she daydreamed about, she pointed at the ceiling above our heads, where her neighbor lived with a rabbit who had been rescued a few weeks earlier. “I don’t daydream about crushes. I daydream about the rabbit who lives upstairs,” Tara said. “I imagine what it would be like to be her.”
Once I started asking other people about their daydreams, I began to realize that daydreams are like pain: impossible to compare across the bodies of dreamers. Different in texture, different in intensity, different in constancy: all the time might mean once an hour to one person, once a minute to another. No Greenwich Mean Time for our inner fantasy lives. One person might say “Google stalk” and mean glancing at a Wikipedia page, but to me it means getting to the bottom of the fourth page of search results, or the ninth, to the article someone’s mother once published in a neighborhood newspaper recounting her childhood vacations to an island off the coast of Maine.
It started to seem like other people’s daydreams were secrets they kept hidden in plain sight. They fantasized in front of me all the time—on the subway and the sidewalk, in my classes—but I had no idea what movies played inside their heads, or hummed at the tips of their tongues, perpetually unspoken. Some people understand daydreaming as a generative mode of self-actualization, à la The Secret—the world will give you what you visualize getting—while other people tuck it away like a form of chronic masturbation. On Reddit message boards, daydreamers have created massive crowdsourced catalogues of their daydreaming content: playing every instrument and singing vocals in favorite songs; taking out a high-school gunman; winning the lottery and starting a trash collection business to clean up outer space; lying upside-down and imagining what it would be like to walk on the ceiling of everything; taking revenge against the guy in traffic who cut them off without signaling.
Once I started asking people about their daydreams, it felt like the psychic equivalent of a coffee table book I loved as a child, featuring full of photos of people posed in front of their homes with all of their material possessions, rugs and chairs and pots and pans, stacked on the lawn, or the curb, or the icy field. People piled their daydreams in front of me like used razors and couch cushions and vibrators. One friend told me, “I used to daydream about men, now I daydream about the books I want to write.” Another friend told me that her daydreams aren’t like little films at all. She has trouble summoning visuals in her mind’s eye, and her daydreams are mainly imagined dialogues. “Almost like a radio play,” she said. Some people’s daydreams aren’t even narrative. They’re more like poems. One friend told me that when she was a teenager full of suicidal thoughts, she would have a specific fantasy of her head filling up with Civil War bullets, the silver balls slowly darkening the round globe of her skull like a gumball machine.
In his seminal 1966 book, Daydreaming: An Introduction to the Experimental Study of Inner Experience, the Yale psychologist Jerome L. Singer argues that daydreaming can serve an adaptive purpose in people’s lives, helping them attend more closely to their inner lives, manage their emotions, and solve frustrating problems. In the same year, he and John Antrobus (who had been his first doctoral student) released the Imaginal Processes Inventory, a questionnaire with 344 statements designed to gather information about the frequency and content of people’s daydreams, as well as the role these daydreams played in their daily lives. Over his years of research, Singer outlined three broad styles of daydreaming: positive-constructive daydreaming (characterized by playful, wishful, “planful” thinking), guilty-dysphoric daydreaming (characterized by anxious, obsessive, often failure-related fantasies), and poor attentional control (characterized by an inability to fully inhabit either the internal daydream or the external situation). Many psychologists before and after Singer have considered daydreaming in negative terms (focused on the detrimental effects of “mind wandering”), but much of Singer’s research focused on the positive dimensions—specifically, daydreaming’s correlation with creativity, problem-solving, constructive planning, and interpersonal curiosity. The scope of the statements on the IPI itself suggests the range of what this single term, daydream, might mean across the minds of various dreamers: I imagine myself failing those I love. The sounds I hear in my daydreams are clear and distinct. I picture myself being accepted into an organization for successful individuals only. In my daydreams, I feel guilty for having escaped punishment. The “pictures in my mind” seem as clear as photographs.
For some people, daydreams might involve abstract ideas; for others, they’re highly granular sensory fantasies: a lover’s gravelly British accent, the chlorinated ripple of a plunge pool in the Maldives. It’s nearly impossible for me to daydream in the abstract. I never fantasized about the idea of getting the Pulitzer. Instead, I fantasized about getting the phone call as I’m out with my infant daughter strapped to my chest, running late for work, realizing I forgot to pack the boiled zucchini she needs for lunch. It’s a fantasy in which all the banality of being a mother is interrupted, for a moment, by an extraordinary moment of being witnessed as something else: an artist, a genius, whatever. It would have been impossible to summon that fantasy without the sensory texture: my baby’s onesie and my own shirt dampened with sweat, the sweet almond of her shampoo, the rise of her curls beneath my chin, the crush of strollers on the morning sidewalks.
“Our lives become an elegy to needs unmet and desires sacrificed, to possibilities refused, to roads not taken,” Phillips writes. “We can’t imagine our lives without the unlived lives they contain.”
But I don’t agree with Phillips when he says that “the right choice is the one that makes us lose interest in the alternatives,” and I suspect he doesn’t even agree fully with himself. It’s a delusion—a fantasy of certainty—to think there’s a path that could make anyone stop wondering about the other paths. My friend Anna tells me, “I feel sure that depression is when you don’t know what you daydream about.” Daydreams aren’t questions to be answered, but questions to live with, dangerous only when they stay static. Even in our best lives, our daydreams allow us to retain secret lives that no one else can access or touch. They are the ultimate privacy: the thing that remains secret even inside our closest intimacies, perhaps the thing that exists in order to remain private within those intimacies. The things we imagine doing are more private than any of the things we’ve done.
On a late-summer afternoon, on a strip of grass beside the East River, my daughter was zipping herself into a ghost suit. She was three-and-a-half years old, and impossible to photograph; she was always in motion. On this day, she was creating an imaginary county fair using the grass, rocks, stairs, and bike-racks of the park: the ghost ride, the bear ride, the underworld ride, and the vacuum cleaner ride. Just a month earlier, we’d gone to an actual county fair upstate in New Paltz, taken a Ferris wheel high into a bruised purple sky. Like the actual rides we’d gone on, these invented rides imposed reliable commands—step in, zip up, buckle up, go here—onto situations that might otherwise be frightening. Step-by-step instructions for navigating overwhelm.
In his theory of daydreaming, Sigmund Freud links the imaginary play of childhood not only to adult daydreaming but also to an artist’s work:
Might we not say that every child at play behaves like a creative writer, in that he creates a world of his own, or rather, rearranges the things of this world in a new way which pleases him? It would be wrong to think he does not take that world seriously; on the contrary, he takes his play very seriously and he expends large amounts of emotion on it. The opposite of play is not what is serious but what is real.
A half-century later, the psychologist D. W. Winnicott also proposed a connection between childhood play and adult daydreaming—but while Freud is invested in the connections between childhood play and creative inspiration, Winnicott is most interested in daydreaming as an extension of childhood self-soothing practices. Winnicott’s famous theory of the “good-enough mother” holds that while a mother initially adapts herself almost entirely to the needs of her child, over time her child is increasingly able to endure her “failures” to meet the child’s needs completely. This capacity takes the form of physical self-soothing (thumb-sucking), transitional objects, and ultimately more sophisticated internal processes of “remembering, reliving, fantasying, dreaming.” In this framework, daydreams start as an adaptive coping mechanism, but they can also become—in adulthood—a way of disassociating from the frustrations of reality rather than tolerating them.
Freud and Winnicott offer two different ways of understanding daydreaming: daydreaming as a manifestation of the artist in everyone—a type of casual, everyday creative production—or daydreaming as a crutch, an adult form of thumb-sucking, a way of ducking away from the stress, uncertainty, or overwhelm of daily life.
Perhaps these are not two categorically different ways of understanding daydreaming, but one way to start constructing a taxonomy of daydreams: richly generative fantasies versus the cul-de-sac of a coping mechanism. Do our daydreams build something, or simply run away from something else? And if they can do both, how do we become aware of which one they are doing? When does desire lead us somewhere useful, and when does it simply make it impossible for us to be wherever we are?
In December 1907, in the offices of a Vienna bookseller, Freud delivered a lecture called “Creative Writers and Daydreaming” to a small crowd of around ninety people. “May we really attempt to compare the imaginative writer with the ‘dreamer in broad daylight’ [Der traumer am hellichten Tag] and his creations with daydreams?” he asked. The answer was yes. Just as we can read romance novels and adventures with confidence, Freud argued, knowing that nothing will happen to the protagonist “under the protection of a special Providence,” so a daydreamer operates with a kind of impunity, knowing he enjoys the “special Providence” of being the story’s author as well as its central character. “Through this revealing characteristic of invulnerability,” Freud observed, “we can immediately recognize His Majesty the Ego, the hero alike of every daydream and of every story.”
Whenever I take up Freud’s invitation to regard the creative writer as a professionalized daydreamer, I imagine Harold, the hero of Harold and the Purple Crayon, who draws the landscape he inhabits, full of hot-air balloons and picnics, using more fantasy to solve the problems that his fantasies create: When he draws too many pies for his picnic, he draws a moose and a porcupine to eat them up. When he tires of his fantasy, he draws his own bed to return to. There’s a certain kind of daydreaming that involves not just manipulating the terms of the world but actually building them—or rebuilding them. During high school, I assumed my crushes were about the boys, but looking back, I can see they were always about the girls: my friends, my co-authors. The boys were just ciphers, a pretext for our elaborate collaborations.
In 1971, a group of female artists led by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro created Womanhouse, which they called a “repository of daydreams.” They converted an abandoned mansion in Hollywood into a collection of whimsical, fantastical, and polemical environments: Chicago’s Menstruation Bathroom (a white bathroom filled with nothing but menstruation products, a trash can overflowing with bloody tampons, and a clothesline strung with bloody pads); Faith Wilding’s Womb Room (a giant crocheted spiderweb); Sandy Orgel’s Linen Closet (a female mannequin whose body had been sliced into pieces by the shelves that held her linens). As Chicago and Schapiro wrote in their catalogue essay, “The age-old female activity of homemaking was taken to fantasy proportions. Womanhouse became the repository of the daydreams women have as they wash, bake, cook, sew, clean and iron their lives away.”
Daydreaming often has political stakes: intrinsically anti-capitalist because it doesn’t “produce” anything—though its content is often deeply aspirational, structured by capitalism—it’s also an activity that workers can do alongside the labor they’ve been forced to do, whether it’s manual or domestic, clerical or janitorial; whether it involves caregiving or production.
On Wild Minds, a seventy-four-year-old retired graphic designer shares that she has been expanding the same “enormous soap opera” since childhood: “Since I was four years old I have invented secret, fictional characters in huge quantities and spent hours each day fine tuning and developing these ‘people’ . . . an elaborate inner world of over 200 characters.” After the trauma of being sent away to boarding school at the age of eight, her daydreams grew more “pathological”: “My fantasies are like watching a film, with I the creator but not in it as myself . . . The content became progressively detailed, their families, appearance, age with birth dates, height, interests . . . I also indulged in mantras of their private, special names.”
Even the language she uses to describe her daydreams begins to map her conflicted feelings: “pathological” but also sustaining, how she “indulged” in the reciting of their “private, special names.” She has always been at the core—the godly director—but never part of the show; her entire life has played out alongside this shadow world. “Owing to its intense gratification, I have never been able to let it go.”
In Freud’s description of the “revealing characteristic of invulnerability” at the core of every daydream, I see one explanation for why daydreams often include so much darkness, peril, and trouble: Invulnerability is made most visible by trouble. It’s only by getting close to danger and evading it that we can feel ourselves impervious to it.
One user on Wild Minds started an entire thread about negative daydreams, on which people shared how they invented traumatic situations in order to imagine themselves rescuing someone or being rescued, or even more banal examples: daydreaming bossy people and then imagining how they could be encouraged to change.
In one recurring fantasy that I had near the end of my marriage, I was married to a war correspondent, and while I was pregnant with his child he got abducted by ISIS and held hostage for months. There was a reel of film I played again and again: My body crossing the tarmac toward his army plane, with the wind lifting my hair as I watched his emaciated body descending the steps, kneeling in front of me, kissing my belly. Sometimes the fantasy was in first person, and I was seeing everything through my own eyes; other times it was in third person, and I watched us from above.
It’s shameful to confess a daydream like this—though I suspect many people have them—because it feels like exploitation, as if I plucked some abstracted, operatic pain from a Hollywood premise, connected to the actual suffering of others, and called it my own in an attempt to brush up against a powerful feeling.
Shameful as it was, there was still a reason I was doing it. “You can’t treat your anorexia as something that’s merely destroying you,” a therapist once told me. “You have to ask what it’s giving you. What you get from it.”
Constructing this hypothetical version of myself, facing the abduction of my war-correspondent husband, offered relief from the far more mundane pain that saturated my days: googling “divorced while pregnant” to see if others had done it. My real-life pain was ordinary and unresolved. It had no structure of crisis and relief. In the fantasy of capture and return, the reunion on the tarmac, the roar of engines drowning our voices, I found the consoling purity of unequivocal feeling states: fear and love. It was a fantasy of emotional simplicity: melodrama as antidote to the muddled emotional contradictions of reality. In a life-and-death scenario, romantic ambivalence is beside the point. The point is staying alive. The point is being together again. The harder parts of being together again—boredom, claustrophobia, the sour whiff of vulnerability—have no footing in the stark chiaroscuro of peril and salvation.
In the bold plotlines of dark daydreams, the danger is entirely external. A relationship isn’t threatened by the internal demons of anger, resentment, distance. It’s threatened by terrorists! The call is no longer coming from inside the house. But that’s the inevitable betrayal of daydreaming: even when you outsource the trouble, the call is always coming from inside the house.
After my separation, I’d often scroll through Zillow to find the blueprints of other lives: a cedar house near Anchorage with a dodecagon living room, or a white farmhouse in Maine with hydrangeas crowding the gravel driveway and the perfect blue-raspberry lozenge of a swimming pool in back. In all these houses, I always found myself looking for windows—as if I suspected I would always daydream about somewhere else, like the boy who used his last wish from the genie to wish for a thousand more.
The internet has changed the terms of our daydreaming. On Zillow, a thousand different houses offer a thousand different versions of yourself. Other people’s Instagram accounts build our daydreams for us. TikTok externalizes our fantasies. The internet grants our daydreams fodder, but it also takes away their breathing room. It fills in too many gaps. It’s harder to imagine a Cape Cod wedding with the guy from your college newspaper when your Facebook feed holds a thousand photos of him holding his newborn son. The internet dissolves the buffer between having a crush on someone and stalking him. It makes you feel like you’ve already driven past his house six times that night.
When I asked Padya, my twenty-six-year old research assistant, about their daydreams, they told me about being a teenager in Bangladesh—getting deeply immersed in Tumblr, where people discussed the plotlines of their favorite television shows. Padya started to imagine the discussions that strangers would have about Padya’s life, if it were a television show: which characters people would love, which ones they’d hate; which narrative twists they’d adore, which ones they’d despise. More than Padya imagined the television show of their life, they imagined the comments about the show of their life. Imagining one’s life as a television show felt familiar, but imagining this meta-level discourse about the show felt more specifically born of the digital era—in which reactions are the show, as much as the show itself.
Instagram is like a buffet of daydreams: all you can eat, and none of it yours. A beautiful woman sails the world on a catamaran with her sun-kissed sons. A surfer posts dream-filtered beach sunsets, tube riding, and breakfast smoothies. At @dumpedwifesrevenge, an Australian divorcée posts photographs of herself living her best life—wearing animal-print spandex, holding the setting sun perched on her fingertips—but also situates this daydream in relation to her “bumps.” Her Instagram bio reads: “Dumped for the younger woman after 26 years. My revenge-BE FABULOUS & LOOK FABULOUS.” She sees her Instagram feed as a response to the “challenge” of what her ex told her when their marriage was ending: “When two people have been together for a long time and they break up, there’s always one who thrives and one who doesn’t.” For the Dumped Wife, cultivating her own life as daydream—professionally photographed—is an act of rebellion and survival.
The rabbit holes of the internet literalize the rhythms of associational thinking, turning mind-wandering into something full of clicks and visuals: You scan the Instagram account of Dumped Wife’s Revenge; you google her name; you find an article about her life, and read that her beach town in southwestern Australia is a “holiday haven for Australia’s elite”; you google “most expensive hotel in Eagle Bay”; you imagine yourself staying at a four-bedroom beach villa with an unbroken view of the turquoise Indian Ocean; you google “trees of southwestern Australia” to figure out what tree is in the corner of the shot—eucalyptus! or maybe banksia—and you google the dumped wife + “younger boyfriend.” You imagine yourself in the hotel. You imagine yourself in her house. You imagine yourself writing an article about her life. You imagine yourself fucking a younger boyfriend whose face you haven’t seen, whose existence you haven’t confirmed. You pivot from speculation (imagining her life) to projection (imagining yourself in her life) and back again. These are the zigzags of a daydreaming mind, but now you can find images to give them life. The abstract daydream becomes six tabs spread across the top of your browser, like a trail of bread crumbs leading the way back into your maze of desire. You, your, yours. The second person like a smoke signal of shame. My browser, my desires.
Perhaps no social media embodies our daydreams more fully than TikTok, on which people act out their daydreams, make fun of themselves daydreaming, reproduce the interiors of their daydreams as absurd picaresque microdramas: endless food without calories, fantasies of flight. The TikTok phenomenon that most accurately externalizes it all, however, is the POV video—a clip that invites the viewer to inhabit a particular scenario, often saturated with the excruciating emotional stakes of being a teenager. Some feel like exposure therapy: a sweet girl in a yellow floral smocked blouse invites you to imagine “ur teacher lets u pick partners but u have 2 friends in ur class who partnered up,” or “there’s not enough seats at the lunch table today, so you have no where to sit.” It’s almost like Edmund Burke’s idea of the sublime: encountering danger from a position of safety.
Other POV videos look more like wish fulfillment: In one TikTok that’s been hearted more than two million times, a bespectacled, sweet-faced boy with a baggy striped shirt says, “#pov you dont have a lunch at school and i offer you my entire lunch because I want you to be okay.” @idrinkvapejuice has gotten more than six hundred thousand hearts on a TikTok captioned, “POV: i’m ur dumb jock crush. you tell me you’re feeling depressed. i try to make it better.” The girl mimes someone who has little experience with sadness, but real compassion for it—or at least, real compassion for a girl with a nice ass: “Depressed?” she says slowly. “Don’t. Be. Sad. You are so thick.”
Watching this TikTok, even just reading its caption, is like reading the CliffsNotes version of my deepest desires, outsourced to the internet. How many times have I played through some version of this fantasy: That my sadness could make me desirable? That it could solicit someone’s love, or at least his attention? One siren call of social media is that we might see our desires given shape before we even have to shape them ourselves, that someone else might do the work of wanting for us, that we could outsource this labor, as we have outsourced so many others.
Over dinner, my friend Adrian told me about the recurring daydream he used to have during his time at reform school. This was a boarding school he’d been taken to against his will, as a teenager, in a nightmarish scenario in which strangers came into his bedroom in the middle of the night and took him to a car waiting outside. It was a removal designed to make him feel as if he had no control over his body. So it didn’t surprise me that his daydream was about bodily escape.
During their mandatory group therapy sessions, he would gaze at a massive window—directly across from his assigned seat—and imagine running straight through it. It was a fantasy of sudden rupture as relief in the midst of ongoing tedium. He wouldn’t imagine this abstractly, but in a very detailed, almost pragmatic way: what angle he should run from, how he should position his body so it wouldn’t be injured by the broken glass. He imagined the feeling of the glass shattering around his moving body—the pressure and release, the sharpness, the crackling of shards.
It might seem counterintuitive to get tangled in the pragmatics of a daydream, given that part of the point of a daydream is its ability to transcend the pragmatic. In a fantasy, my friend could have made himself immune to broken glass. I could have made the Portland lawyer unmarried. But that somehow feels like cheating. A frictionless daydream feels like vapor. There’s more traction when you let reality poke through the dream—like splinters emerging from the grain of the wood, catching in the palm.
“It’s funny how we still want the laws of gravity to apply in our daydreams,” I told my friend. “We don’t want them to happen on the moon.”
“We want real life to happen on the moon,” he agreed. “We want our daydreams to happen here on Earth.”
One evening at dusk, a patient sat with her psychotherapist, none other than Donald Winnicott, and confessed that even while they were talking about her daydreaming compulsion, she was daydreaming. Pointing at the sliver of sky she could see through his office window, she told him, “I am up on those pink clouds where I can walk,” and then asked if he thought her fantasy was generative or toxic: “When I am walking up on that pink cloud, is that my imagination enriching life or is it this thing that you are calling fantasying which happens when I am doing nothing and which makes me feel that I do not exist?” Over the course of their sessions together, Winnicott had been distinguishing between imagination—a kind of speculation connected to real life, like looking forward to a holiday—and “fantasying,” a more dissociative state in which some nominal physical activity—smoking compulsively, or playing solitaire for hours—becomes a cover for compulsive daydreaming. “In the fantasying,” he writes, “what happens happens immediately, except that it does not happen at all.” Over the course of decades devoted to these fantasies, he wrote, his patient “managed to construct a life in which nothing that was really happening was fully significant to her.”
The phrase “maladaptive daydreaming” was first coined in 2002 by Dr. Eli Somer, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Haifa, who defined it as “extensive fantasy activity that replaces human interaction and/or interferes with academic, interpersonal, or vocational functioning.” In 2017, Somer founded the International Consortium for Maladaptive Daydreaming Research, and developed a sixteen-point scale called the MDS-16, which includes questions such as, “When the real world interrupts one of your daydreams, how annoyed do you feel?”
In a 2011 survey of ninety “self-identified non-normative fantasizers,” researchers Jayne Bigelsen and Cynthia Schupak found patterns of intoxication and deflation reminiscent of other addictions. “Going into a daydream is very exciting,” one participant said. “The feeling is almost like a kind of euphoria . . . As time passes, I quickly begin to feel locked in, like I can’t let go. Reality always seems harder to face when I’m in a daydream or trying to come out of one.” Another one wrote, “The amount of time you feel you have wasted with an imaginary community whilst neglecting your loved ones in reality brings about an enormous sense of guilt.” A third said simply, “I just want to function a normal day without being someone else in my mind, without having to play this story.’’
In a bakery by the East River, around the corner from my daughter’s preschool, I asked my mom about her daydreams. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting, except that I’ve often constructed my mother as an idealized mirror image of myself: adjacent, but superior. We’re both emotionally perceptive, but she’s more selfless. We were both working moms, but I work on literary essays and she worked on maternal health in the developing world. While I devoted my twenties to the full-time work of emotional volatility, she was devoting her sixties to getting arrested in her clerical collar at union strikes downtown. She fed me fresh-baked bread during my whole childhood; I feed my daughter a lot of take-out Thai.
She said it was harder now to have the kind of “building block” daydreams she used to have frequently: imagining the future that would be created by something she was doing in the present—speculating about what her kids would be like as adults, or her students’ future careers. Now that she was seventy-seven, her life wasn’t oriented toward the future in the same way. Now? my mom said. She sometimes fantasized about sharing a home with my aunt—her younger sister and best friend for seventy-three years—and she felt that even if this never came to pass, the daydream offered her a bridge: a way to think about the end of her life as something that would not be lonely or institutional.
Maybe youth is the native habitat of daydreams: the more possible futures in front of you, the more soil in which daydreams can take root. As we get older, our daydreams assume the shape of nostalgia or counterfactuals.
“These days,” my mom continued, “some of my daydreams are about death.” She didn’t mean she wanted to die, just that she sometimes imagined what death might be like. This kind of daydreaming reminded her of being a child, fiercely determined to figure out how the world came to exist, unsatisfied with her father’s answers. Eventually, she told him, “If you just tell me how it all got started, I can figure out the rest.”
While we often long for narrative resolution, when the story is us, that kind of closure means psychic or literal death. Daydreams fight this closure by prolonging the narrative. They keep it unresolved. Imagining a life in which I don’t daydream means imagining the death of a part of myself that I hate—but it’s also a part of me that keeps me alive. A pulse of wondering. The nerve endings of alternatives. If daydreams are constantly forestalling the end of the story—constantly insisting, This life is not done—then how do you daydream the end of the story?
In her daydreams about death, my mother told me, she was often trying to imagine ways it might have some continuity with the life she’s known so far—even as she knows that death is an experience defined by rupture. So much of daydreaming is about escape and alternatives—about imagining difference, envisioning an outside to your life—but this kind of daydreaming, the kind my mother described, is about the opposite. It’s about imagining how things might stay the same. It’s about imagining how some parts of ourselves might follow, even as we leave the world—or how a version of us might already be out there, somehow waiting.