Immersive daydreaming and flow – distinctions and similarities

Professor Eli Somer describes immersive and maladaptive daydreaming as states of dissociative absorption. Let’s break down what that means. Absorption is the process of becoming absorbed, focussing or concentrating intently on one thing and ignoring any distractions. Dissociation means a disconnection or separation. When we become dissociated, we become detached from reality and lose our connection to ourselves or to our surroundings. So, dissociative absorption is the process of becoming so focussed on something that we lose awareness of our surroundings, ourselves, or the passage of time. It’s as if our awareness contracts such that the only thing that exists for us in that moment is the thing that has grabbed our attention. That’s an experience that many immersive and maladaptive daydreamers can relate to.

But there are other mental processes that fit the description of dissociative absorption. One of these is the flow state. The term “flow” was first used by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and I highly recommend watching his TED talk, where he explains very clearly how he defines flow and what circumstances are necessary for us to get into a flow state.

Professor Csikszentmihalyi outlines seven characteristics of flow:

  • Being completely involved, focussed and concentrated
  • Being unaware of the passage of time
  • A feeling of ecstasy, which Csikszentmihalyi defines as feeling you have been transported outside your everyday routines.
  • Intrinsic motivation; the task itself is the only reward you need to do it
  • Inner clarity; knowing what needs to be done
  • Inner confidence; a certainty that you have the necessary skills to do what needs to be done
  • A feeling of serenity or being part of something larger than yourself

The first two characteristics indicate that flow is a form of dissociative absorption. These, along with the next two characteristics, are things that are common to both flow and immersive daydreaming. The differences between daydreaming and flow are summed up by the final three characteristics, which involve goals and achievement. When we get into a flow state, we are typically achieving or creating something. We are focussed on a task that we have decided is necessary or worthwhile. Our absorption has a purpose. And that means that after we have spent time in flow, we’re typically left with an achievement; we look back on the flow state as something positive because we have something to show for it. We feel good about ourselves. On the other hand, when we’ve been daydreaming, particularly when we daydreamed longer than we intended, we’re typically left with a sense of time wasted, of tasks left undone, and we generally feel bad about ourselves. It is this sense of regret, feeling bad in the long-term, despite the daydreaming itself being enjoyable, that helps define maladaptive daydreaming as an addictive behaviour.  

So one difference between daydreaming and flow is that flow leads to achievement. Another difference is that flow challenges us. Professor Csikszentmihalyi concludes his TED talk by explaining that the flow state occurs when we are using hard-earned skills to rise to a new challenge. I do think that daydreaming uses skills, even when it feels effortless. Over our lifetimes, we have honed our creativity through thousands of hours of daydreaming, and we’ve got very good at thinking up new characters and plot twists. On the other hand, however, daydreaming isn’t challenging. It doesn’t push us out of our comfort zone. Professor Csikszentmihalyi says that when we’re using skills but not being challenged, what we’re experiencing is relaxation, which I think is a good description of daydreaming. But most of the activities we would typically class as relaxation wouldn’t qualify as dissociative absorption; they don’t capture our attention such that hours can pass without us even being aware of it.

In summary, being in a daydream can feel very similar to being in flow. Both are states that consume our entire attention, to the extent that we lose track of time, our surroundings and even ourselves. Both feel good in the moment. But the flow state occurs when we’re challenged to achieve something, and that achievement allows us to continue feeling good even after the flow state has dissipated. On the other hand, daydreaming doesn’t involve challenge or achievement, so we tend to feel more negatively about it after we’ve daydreamed. If you’re trying to reduce the amount of time you spend daydreaming, then swapping some of your daydreaming time for time spent in flow might help you to retain the benefits of daydreaming while avoiding the negative consequences.