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The happiness of the otaku: Daydreaming to well-being

by Rowan Hooper

Contributing Writer

I’ve only once ever been addressed by someone using the pronoun “otaku.

Taken literally, the word refers to “someone else’s house or family,” and on rare occasions it is used as the second-person pronoun, “you.” The only time it was used to address me was by a police officer in Roppongi, Tokyo, and while it’s probably best not to get into the particulars of that sordid episode, it’s typical that it was a police officer who used it. In this instance the use of otaku is super-formal, but it still felt weird. At the time I was delighted to hear the word used in its original sense.

Otaku now is mostly taken to mean people with an obsessive interest in something, particularly manga and anime. The nickname seems to have come about because of a feeling that such people are socially withdrawn and never progress beyond calling other people by super-formal pronouns. And while there has been some reclaiming of the name, there is still a negative connotation attached to it.

So I was interested to see a paper in the Journal of Happiness Studies that looked into the effects of the heavy use of “otaku type” anime and games, and the beneficial effects of mindfulness and daydreaming.

Yoshinori Sugiura and Tomoko Sugiura of Hiroshima University surveyed 800 adults and scored them for their consumption of “otaku contents” — that is, the amount of time they spent watching anime or playing video games, their sense of well being and their tendency to daydream.

Daydreaming is a curious state. By some measures we spend around half of our waking time imagining something other than what we are doing, but psychologists have found the habit tends to reduce happiness. It seems counterintuitive, right? Daydreaming usually takes us away from our mediocre chores to something more exciting, so you might expect it would cheer us up.

The Sugiuras supposed that daydreaming does have a potentially beneficial effect but that it is hard to deliver that benefit. They came up with two potential ways that we can unlock the benefits of daydreaming. One is the consumption of otaku contents. “Those who are expert in enjoying imagination derived from animation and games will have rich contents to make daydreaming pleasant,” says Yoshinori Sugiura.

The other is mindfulness. “Mindful people are good at monitoring anything happening in their mind will not get lost in fantasy, like skilled sailors,” he says.

Sure enough, the survey indicated that among avid consumers of otaku contents or highly mindful people, a higher frequency of daydreaming was related to higher feelings of well-being. The pattern wasn’t seen in people not consuming large amounts of anime or games, or in people who do not practice mindfulness.

I asked Yoshinori about his motivations to undertake this study. Partly, he said, it was from seeing findings that suggest that regular physical exercise can enhance happiness. While that may be true (it does seem to be), Yoshinori felt that could be exclusionary for people who don’t like exercise. And it seems he wanted to be a champion for otaku culture, which is often derided or mocked.

“Most people do not think otaku consumers would be experts in daydreaming in order to feel happiness,” he says. “Therefore, demonstrating the link between otaku (content) consumption and happiness will have a big impact.”

His work does help show a positive side to otaku culture.

“Exercise is good for your mind as it is for your body, but only when done properly,” Yoshinori says. Imagination is a vital part of our brain’s functions: It is involved in planning for the future, understanding other people’s intentions and feelings, and dreaming up solutions to problems. It is fundamental to human success, but it is bound up with other aspects of brain function that can be problematic, such as anxiety and depression.

“Our study suggested one of the proper ways to handle imagination,” says Yoshinori. “That is, to enjoy imagination as otaku consumers do. We encounter many things at bookstores or on the web saying: ‘You’ll be happy and healthy by doing this!’ Unfortunately, many of them do not have scientific studies to underpin their claim.”

Otaku culture contributes trillions of yen per year to the Japanese economy. The Sugiuras’ work should help show that otaku culture can have a positive impact on mental health, too.

Rowan Hooper is managing editor of New Scientist magazine. He tweets at @rowhoop and his book “Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity” is out now, published by Simon & Schuster.