At a time when we’re constantly inundated with advertisements, 24-hour news, and social media, taking time for quiet contemplation can seem like a luxury from a bygone era. When we’re not checking our phones or running between work and social gatherings, we feel anxious for not doing so. But making time for introspection and giving ourselves space to just be can make us more creative and self-aware, something the great historian and educator James Harvey Robinson believed was essential to self-actualization.
In his seminal 1921 essay, On Various Kinds of Thinking, Robinson referred to these moments when our minds wander as reverie. For Robinson, reverie was so important to our well being that it constituted the “chief index to our fundamental character.”
“[Reverie] is our spontaneous and favorite kind of thinking. We allow our ideas to take their own course and this course is determined by our hopes and fears, our spontaneous desires, their fulfillment or frustration; by our likes and dislikes, our loves and hates and resentments. There is nothing else so interesting to ourselves as ourselves.”
Robinson argued that practical thoughts–those utilitarian considerations that we face throughout the day (should I ride the subway today? Did I turn off the stove?) – “are a more difficult and laborious thing than the reverie, and we resent having to ‘make up our mind’ when we are tired, or absorbed in a congenial reverie.” In other words, we feel most fulfilled when free to daydream. Of the four types of thought Robinson identified–reverie, decision making, rationalizing, and creative fact–reverie, he believed, is the most enjoyable.
Reverie allows for thinking that is just as long as it is wide, extending into the past, present, and future, helping the thinker form new ideas and inspirations.
It’s easy to see why: the word literally means to be pleasantly lost in thought. Reverie allows for thinking that is just as long as it is wide, extending into the past, present, and future, helping the thinker form new ideas and inspirations. Like in sleeping dreams, in reverie we build worlds of our minds creation and forge paths that can and often do manifest themselves in the real world. Without reveries, would an entrepreneur come up with her next world shaping idea? Or an artist her next masterpiece?
What would Robinson say about reverie today? That it is more important now than ever. With notifications, and text messages, emails and comments, and thousands of other distractions constantly vying for our attention, it has never been more difficult to make time for reverie. And that’s a shame. So much good can come of losing oneself in thoughts and dreams from time to time. It gets us excited for the future, helps us find answers to gnawing questions, and guides us to important life decisions. In a world that often feels overwhelming and beyond our control, we can all benefit from a little more of that.