The holidays are here, with their extravagant wish lists, their sparkling tales of elves, miracles and magic. All of this fantasy is good for the soul, especially when the weather’s cold and the traffic beastly. But fantasy is like medicine: Though it can vastly improve our lives, the wrong kind or dose can weaken or poison us. Learning to daydream in a healthy way is one of the many crucial life skills I suspect no one’s ever taught you.

Most of the world’s inventions, innovations, and great works of art began as one person’s dream. Imagination gives us the vision we need to plan our future, and it helps us create. Daydreaming is crucial—so as we head into the season of fantasy, here’s a primer on mastering the art.

Start by noticing what your mind does when it’s off leash. Without overthinking it, sit back and imagine the future—tomorrow, or next month, or next year. How do those scenarios make you feel? Inspired? Tense? Numb? Strangely, many people daydream in ways that leave them frightened, depressed, or feeling trapped. See if any of the following patterns sound familiar.

Flirting with disaster. The most destructive kind of daydream is what psychologists call a catastrophic fantasy, a waking nightmare about all the awful things that could happen: Maybe we’ll have a horrible family brawl at the holiday dinner! Maybe my plane will crash! Maybe bird flu will spread—okay, hold it right there. Next time you feel that familiar dread, when your gut drops and your neck stiffens, stop and tell yourself what’s happening (i.e., I’m having a catastrophic fantasy). It’s like shaking yourself out of a nightmare.

The next step is to rein in your mind. If you’re a chronic catastrophizer, this is easier said than done—but you don’t have to force yourself to think positively. In fact, struggling against your feelings will only reinforce them. The way to interrupt self-defeating patterns is to stop focusing on your swirling anxiety and instead train your attention on the physical world. First, your body: Are you clenching your fists or shifting nervously from side to side? Don’t judge your reactions; just observe them. Now feel your breath rising and falling, gravity holding you securely. Look around you, paying careful attention to the smallest details. When your mind is fully engaged with these realities, your catastrophic fantasies will begin to recede. I’m not saying the things you worry about couldn’t possibly happen—but they’re not happening right now. You can cope with this moment, and that’s all you’ll ever have to cope with.

Illustration: Jasu Hu

Looping. Most of us do this kind of destructive daydreaming without even noticing. We’re not anticipating anything dreadful; we’re simply imagining that the future will be an endless loop of the same-old, same-old. If you grew up watching your parents fight, you may not be able to picture a happy marriage and you assume you’ll be miserable, too. If you’ve always been poor, you may not know what prosperity would mean, and so you just hope to scrape by. These fantasies sound unimaginative, but they’re powerfully creative: They generate an endless cycle that keeps us from moving forward to our best destiny.

Imagination is unlimited, mighty, and free—use it! Try dreaming of a future that’s just a little better. When that feels comfortable, aim a bit higher. You don’t need to envision anything outlandish—in fact, that’s another kind of negative daydreaming, which I call...

Pipe dreaming. I’m all for dreaming big, but dreams should motivate you to act. Outrageous fantasies can be like opiates, drugging us into a happy stupor: We imagine everything and do nothing. I’ve coached scores of people who fantasized about becoming movie stars or best-selling authors without thinking about the part where they’d have to take acting lessons or sit down to write.

Fantasy should give you a taste of success that keeps you going through the tough slog toward wish fulfillment. If you have long-standing fantasies of success but never actually do anything about them, you’re addicted to a mind opiate. The fix is to figure out smaller steps. Instead of fantasizing about winning an Ironman, picture yourself training happily with other hopeful triathletes. Once you’ve made that happen, start dreaming about the next step.

When you’ve shaped the right kind of fantasy, you’ll recognize it because it will bring you joy. Not mania—just a hopeful glow. You may still dream about Mount Everest, but reaching that pinnacle isn’t the point. Your fantasy will simply move you into doing something meaningful. It may not lead to the moment you’ve pictured, but you could discover something even better.

Healthy fantasies are one of the best holiday treats you can give yourself. So best wishes! With a little tweaking, you’ll begin to design daydreams that bring you good cheer and progress, setting the stage for a truly happy new year.


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