Happiness in Dreaming

Happiness in Dreaming by Kelly Bulkeley

What makes us happy in our dreams?

Dreams often have lots of unpleasant content—aggression, misfortune, negative emotions. Even people with peaceful lives can have disturbing nightmares about potential dangers on the horizon. Dreaming becomes even more negatively toned during times of actual crisis, such as the present.

Not all dreams are distressing, however. Many dreams are emotionally neutral, without strong feelings one way or another. A few dreams express happier feelings, sometimes intensely so, with as much emotional clarity and vividness as any nightmare. Researchers usually pay little attention to such dreams, despite their strong and lasting impact on people’s waking awareness.

How often do people have happy dreams? What occurs in the dreams to make them happy? Are there any recurrent themes or scenarios?

Some initial answers to these questions come from exploring the dream collections in the Sleep and Dream Database. According to the SDDb baseline frequencies of word usage in dreams, 8% of ordinary dreams include at least one reference to happiness, women’s dreams slightly more than men’s dreams, 9.1% vs. 6.3%. (These percentages closely parallel the findings of the Hall and Van de Castle norms; see reference at the end.)

Looking at specific sets of dreams, references to happiness appear in 10.3% of the reports of 25+ words in several hundred “most memorable” dreams from children ages 8-18. A few recurrent themes stand out: social gatherings with family and friends; playing with pets and other animals; having an amazing adventure; early romance; and experiencing something very lucky or fortunate.

“I had a dream I was at the beach with my family. We were playing football in the sand and everyone was so happy. It was a good time. At the end we went out to eat.”

“When I was 14 years old I had a dream that my three best friends were with me in New York City. We were chasing a rubber ball around the city. I felt light and happy in the dream because I was with my friends.”

“I have a lot of dreams about space. I see myself making rockets that will go into space and feel happy that I can do this.”

“I was at my house and a bunch of dogs were surrounding my bed. I was so happy because I love dogs. I was 9.”

Looking at a set of several hundred “most memorable” dreams from adults, happiness appears in 7.5% of the reports of 25+ words, a little less than in the children’s dreams. The same themes found in the children’s dreams also appear in this set: fun social gatherings, new discoveries, amazing powers. What’s interesting with the adult dreams is how often the reference to happiness occurs in the context of a visitation dream, when someone who has died returns to visit the dreamer.

“In my dream I was on vacation with my wife and son and all my good friends and family had different parts in the dream. I can’t remember where we were on vacation, but I do remember that it was in the mountains and then by the beach. Colors were mostly blue and green and I remember being very happy.”

“I can’t recall a specific or memorable dream, just general themes, such as being able to fly or hover. In these dreams I am usually able to move comfortably or freely over landscapes. I feel free, in control, happy.”

“I am cleaning my home and discover a stairway that leads to a large room I had not been aware of before. I have dreamed this all my life. In my dream I am very pleased about the new large space.”

“my mother who passed away several years ago came to and told me it was time to move on with my life she was happy and she gave me a big hug the hug felt so real i woke up.”

“Shortly after my Mom died, I had a dream that I had a picnic with both my Mom and Dad on a beautiful mountainside filled with many blooming flowers. My dad had died 13 years earlier. It was very soothing for me to see them happy together. They appeared to be in their 30s and were happy and healthy. The setting was beautiful and made me feel peaceful about them together in heaven with God.”

A few suggestions arise from this brief foray into digital dream research.

First, when you have a happy dream, be grateful. It’s a rather rare phenomenon.

Second, consider what makes you happy in your dreams and how it relates to what makes you happy in waking life. Are they different, or in sync? Guided by happiness in dreaming, can you seek similar experiences of happiness in the waking world (without being too literalistic about it)?

Third, does this knowledge about happiness in dreaming give you any ideas about how to bring new experiences of happiness to other people in your waking life? Ponder the following dream report:

“About three years old, I dreamed of being surprised by a little cocker spaniel puppy sitting in a basket underneath my mother’s sewing machine. He woofed, jumped out and licked my face wagging his tail. I was SO happy to see the cutest puppy ever, and knew it was for me. He seemed so REAL it propelled me to jump out of bed to go pick him up. Of course he wasn’t there anymore, and when I was unable to find him in any of the other rooms, I ran to my parents who were still in bed and begged them to help me find where he went. Even after they explained it was only a dream, I kept looking around corners. For days I remember still hoping he would pop up. ASIDE: After work one day, my dad ended up bringing home a puppy just like the one in my dream.”

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today on July 22, 2020.

The Legacy of William Dement

The Legacy of William Dement by Kelly Bulkeley

The world of sleep and dream research lost one of its all-time greats with the passing of William Dement. He died on June 17, at the age of 91. Dement was an innovative clinician, a popular teacher, and a strong voice for greater public attention to the dangers of inadequate sleep. He led the creation of the field of sleep medicine and devoted much of his career to mapping out various kinds of sleep pathologies and disorders. Our present-day understanding of the vital importance of sleep for human health depends in large part on his work.

Dement earned his M.D. and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, where he worked in the 1950’s and 1960’s with Nathaniel Kleitman and Eugene Aserinsky on some of the first detailed studies of the sleep cycle. He is generally credited with coining the term “rapid eye movement (REM) sleep” as a way to describe the regular phases of heightened neurophysiological arousal during the sleep cycle, phases in which an easily observed external sign is the darting movements of the sleeper’s eyes under their closed lids. He also performed some of the first experiments looking at the connections between the physiology of sleep and the psychology of dreaming.

After his time at Chicago, Dement went to Stanford University and in 1970 founded the Stanford Sleep Medicine Clinic. His research and public advocacy brought new awareness to sleep as a key factor in transportation safety (sleepy drivers and pilots are a danger to everyone), child education (sleepy kids can’t learn), and economic growth (sleepy workers are less productive).

For years he taught a popular course at Stanford on “Sleep and Dreaming,” and one of my only regrets from my time as a Stanford undergraduate (1980-1984) was that I never took Dement’s class. But his influence has been enormous on me and everyone who studies sleep and dreams. Among his many writings, the 1997 book The Promise of Sleep (co-authored with Christopher Vaughan) stands out as an authoritative statement of his basic views about sleep. It also includes numerous stories and reflections about the eventful trajectory of his career.

A particularly illuminating story appears in an earlier text, Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep: Exploring the World of Sleep (1972), in which Dement related the following dream:

“Some years ago, I was a heavy cigarette smoker—up to two packs a day. Then one night I had an exceptionally vivid and realistic dream in which I had inoperable cancer of the lung. I remember as though it were yesterday looking at the ominous shadow in my chest X-ray and realizing that the entire right lung was infiltrated. The subsequent physical examination in which a colleague detected widespread metastases in my auxiliary and inguinal lymph nodes was equally vivid. Finally, I experienced the incredible anguish of knowing my life was soon to end, that I would never see my children grow up, and that none of this would have happened if I had quit cigarettes when I first learned of their carcinogenic potential. I will never forget the surprise, joy, and exquisite relief of waking up. I felt I was reborn. Needless to say, the experience was sufficient to induce an immediate cessation of my cigarette habit.”

In his comments on this powerful dream, Dement highlighted a truth often expressed in spiritual or religious contexts, but less often acknowledged in scientific discourse: “Only the dream can allow us to experience a future alternative as if it were real, and thereby to provide a supremely enlightened motivation to act upon this knowledge.” (1972, 102)

Indeed. Thank you for everything, Dr. William Dement.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, July 9, 2020.

Dreams about Recent Protests Against Racial Injustice

Dreams about Recent Protests Against Racial Injustice by Kelly BulkeleyIn recent weeks, many Americans have been dreaming about police, protestors, and frightening acts of violence and destruction. But the dreams differ dramatically in the focus of their anxiety and distress.

A new online survey from YouGov asked nearly 5,000 American adults about their dream recall, insomnia, attitudes toward the Black Lives Matter movement, and dreams of the recent protests against racial injustice. A detailed analysis of the survey is forthcoming, but the initial findings reveal a number of recurrent themes in people’s dreams about the ongoing protests across the country.

Police aggression. One of the most vivid themes involved people being hassled, assaulted, or shot by the police:

“Bad interaction with a cop”

“Bad dreams about being stopped by police. None of the dreams end well”

“I have a 25 year son I sometimes dream I get the call he was shot by the police.”

“I was in a peaceful protest and the police attacked us. I was shot in the leg.”

“I dreamt I was shot by the police”

“I was at a protest like the one i really attended but when the cops threw the gas i wasn’t prepared like i was in real life and it hurt so bad and i fell and they arrested me. i was crying and asking them what i did but they wouldn’t listen”

Images of George Floyd. His horrific death on May 25th echoes through many people’s dreams:

“I dream about how that poor man was killed it hurts me to have seen that video that poor father”

“I keep replaying the guy dying and saying ‘I can’t breathe, Momma.’”

“it could have just have as easily been me”

“I keep having the death of George Floyd.”

Threats to home. For several people, their greatest concern is an attack on their family residence by looters and rioters:

“protesters coming to burn our home down”

“I’ve had dreams my home is broken into and myself and my family were hurt by others. I woke up and was in a funk for the rest of the week. I refuse to watch the news now a days.”

“It involved me beating up rioters and looters to protect my family”

“I dreamed rioters were shooting at my home.”

“Defending my home and family”

Merging the protests and the pandemic. Some people had nightmares about the convergence of the public protests with the COVID-19 outbreak:

“I was missing a mask and terrified of being near people. But people kept getting close and everyone was marching and everyone was happy and I was trying to act happy too and not let on how scared I was.”

“Was attending a protest with friends in the dream and no one was wearing face masks, and it was a stressful dream because no one was listening to me about the importance of our face masks during the protest!”

If you, or anyone you know, have dreams like these, here are a couple of suggestions.

Be careful about your media consumption. It doesn’t help anyone if you become overwhelmed and paralyzed by mental distress.

Be careful, too, about hasty interpretations. Every dream has multiple meanings, some of which take time and reflection to recognize. It’s always worth considering the possibility of both literal and symbolic meanings. For instance, dreaming of an attack on your home might reflect an actual physical danger to your house, and/or it might reflect a different kind of challenge to the comfort and familiarity of your life, symbolized by your home. Dreams don’t solve our problems, but they do give us emotionally honest portraits of what those problems are and where we need to direct more conscious attention and effort towards change.

The reports above included no further comments or associations, so we cannot be sure what exactly the dreams mean to the dreamer. But we do know, thanks to Charlotte Beradt’s 1966 book The Third Reich of Dreams, along with the research of other historians and anthropologists, that whatever else they might mean for the individual, dreams can provide powerful, accurate, and critically insightful visions of social reality. Especially in times of community crisis, conflict, and trauma, dreams offer a valuable source of collective awareness.

 

Note: The responses and dream reports from this survey will be available soon in the Sleep and Dream Database, an open-access digital archive for empirical dream research.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 4,947 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 15th – 19th June 2020.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all US adults (aged 18+).

This post first appeared in Psychology Today on June 25, 2020. 

Not All Pandemic Dreams Are Nightmares

Not All Pandemic Dreams Are Nightmares by Kelly BulkeleyPeople who are familiar with the deep patterns of their dreams seem to be having fewer nightmares compared to the general population.

This observation is based on a series of interviews I recently conducted with the participants in two dream research projects, one that began in early 2017 and one that began in December of 2019. It’s remarkable to see the different qualities in their dreams compared to other people’s pandemic-related dreams: less fear, more agency, more problem-solving, more willingness to change, more openness to future possibilities.

For many people, the first wave of dreams relating to the Covid-19 outbreak have been unrelentingly nightmarish. The results of an online survey of 2,477 demographically representative American adults in early April indicated that the predominant emotional themes in their dreams are fear, confusion, and uncertainty about the future. Other researchers using anecdotal sources have found similar results.

Part of the story here is that the stay-at-home conditions of this particular crisis have forced many people into a sudden encounter with their dreaming selves and the shadowy powers of their unconscious. This in itself can be a psychological shock, especially for busy, extraverted people who spend most of their time and energy in the external world. Having little or no familiarity with their inner worlds, they are struggling with an unprecedented surge of crisis-related dreaming. This isn’t really surprising: if you have no experience with the ways of your own sleeping mind, any sudden rise in vivid dreams, whatever their contents, is likely to feel scary and overwhelming.

Not so with the participants in these two research studies. The first is the Dream Mapping Project, a group of international artists who have been sharing dreams with me and creating collaborative art projects for more than three years. I recently spoke with four of the artists (by zoom, of course), located in Italy, the Netherlands, Uruguay, and New York City. I also spoke/zoomed with the participants in the 2020 Dreamers Project, in which nine people with high dream recall agreed to keep a year-long journal of their dreams starting in late December of 2019.

These thirteen individuals (11 women, 2 men) are definitely not representative of the general population. They are unusually intuitive and self-aware, and they have been vivid dreamers from an early age. None of them have been untouched by the pandemic: they, too, are suffering jobs lost, careers upended, families in peril, and local communities in distress. The members of these two groups are not oblivious to the crisis or in denial about it. But at least so far, their dreams have been remarkably adaptive and reassuring, in contrast to the nightmares plaguing so many other people.

In a future post, after more consultation with the group members, I hope to share some of their specific dreams. In the meantime, here are key themes as highlighted by the dreamers themselves:

  • They were dreaming about aspects of the Covid-19 outbreak early, in January and February, anticipating the social disruptions about to hit the world, and beginning to envision possible responses.
  • Their dreams definitely have apocalyptic themes of collective crisis, but not with overwhelming feelings of terror, helplessness, or vulnerability. Instead, they mostly maintain their emotional balance amid the chaos, observing and witnessing what’s going on, responding as best they can, and helping other people who are struggling.
  • Their dreams also have post-apocalyptic themes, looking beyond the present crisis to envision the new world ahead. How will we navigate through the altered realities of the future?
  • The problem-solving function of dreaming comes to the fore in their experiences. Their dreams view the crisis as a challenge that’s within their power to manage and solve. Their dreaming attitude is, here’s a problem, it’s big but not impossible, let me figure it out how to deal with it.
  • Some of them say they have been preparing for years, in their dreams and waking lives, for major shifts and transformations in global reality. They have long-standing practices in art, yoga, meditation, and dreaming, and these activities have made them less attached to the status quo and more comfortable amid the uncertainties of radical change. The world suddenly turning upside down is perhaps less of a shock to them than to people who have never engaged in such practices.

More research is needed, of course, to gain a better understanding of the full range of people’s dream experiences during this historically tumultuous time. But the results so far raise an interesting and potentially vital question:

Is deep familiarity with dreaming a source of psychological resilience during times of crisis, and if so, should this be included in future disaster preparations?

 

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, April 21, 2020.

Common Themes in Dreams about the Covid-19 Pandemic

Common Themes in Dreams about the Covid-19 Pandemic by Kelly BulkeleyNightmarish themes are plaguing people’s dreams during the Covid-19 crisis. The first wave of dreaming related to the coronavirus pandemic reveals how people are reacting to vivid fears and anxieties coming from all directions. Fears for oneself, for one’s family and friends, for the whole world—all threaten to consume people in their dreams as in their waking lives. A few dreams do show glimmers of hope and positivity for the future, although right now they are the rare green shoots amid a dark and frightening dreamscape for many people.

To be clear, not everyone is having these dreams. According to a new survey I recently commissioned from YouGov, only 7% of the American adult population answered yes when directly asked if they had dreamed within the last month of the Covid-19 crisis. More people ages 18-34 said they had a pandemic-related dream (9%) than people 35-54 (8%) and people 55+ (5%). This is consistent with the findings mentioned in an earlier post discussing results from the same survey: more people in the younger age group reported an increase in overall dream recall in the past month. (Field work for the online survey was conducted on April 1-3, 2020, with 2,477 American adults. The results have been weighted to approximate the US adult population.)

Perhaps that figure will grow as time goes on. As it is, 7% of all Americans 18+ amounts to around fourteen million people, a considerable number. For comparison, two surveys I conducted during 2016 asked if people had dreamed of the US presidential campaign, and the responses were 7% (May) and 8% (December). This suggests that within just a few weeks, the coronavirus pandemic has already had as much impact on people’s dreams as a long, hotly-contested presidential race.

The dream reports provided by participants provide a further window into the psychological effects of the crisis. Several patterns immediately stand out (gender and age in parentheses).

Fear of catching the disease. This includes worries about being tested, social distancing, isolation, and infecting others.

Contracting and dying alone. This thing never ending. (F, 59)

Wake up anxious about contracting the virus (F, 52)

Scared im gonna get it (F, 58)

i had a dream i got it and had to isolate myself from everyone. (F, 21)

I dreamt that someone came closer than 6 feet to me without my permission and I freaked out at them. (F, 31)

Fear of family and friends catching it. Many expressions of the frustration and sadness of being separated from loved ones.

My best friend passed it to me, I survived but he died from complications. (F, 18)

That a loved one had it and we had to see them through a window; they died and I was alone. (F, 56)

Scared, looking for family members who were lost. (F, 47)

Hearing that family has it and can’t get treatment or that they didn’t survive it. Like I can’t even wave from outside a window to their room or anything. (F, 30)

Difficulty breathing. This one of the most frightening symptoms of the virus. Difficulties in breathing are commonly found in night terrors and sleep paralysis.

That I woke up and couldn’t breathe. Felt like my lungs were filling up. (F, 36)

I was in a hospital bed, empty white room, I was coughing and stopped breathing. Knew that it wasn’t real whenever I couldn’t feel the bed I was on. Woke myself up. (M, 22)

I was dreaming I could not get enough air (M, 63)

Threats to work. The financial anxieties caused by the pandemic come through clearly in people’s dreams.

Losing my job. (M, 53)

Because of job loss I cannot afford to live. (M, 55)

I dreamed about coworkers and the virtual meetings we have had and their difficulty with caring for their kids in the meetings. I felt sad and overwhelmed. (F, 55)

Apocalypse. The end of the world is a recurrent theme in many religious traditions (e.g. the Book of Revelation in the Bible). Dreams are very sensitive to feelings that the world is fragmenting, falling apart, lapsing into chaos.

About the world crumbling. Things got tough. People suffered. Economy of some nation’s crumble…and lots more. (M, 28)

The virus spread uncontrolled, bodies piled up. Company’s closed down. People becoming desperate and violence increasing. (F, 37)

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the Cradle of Life. (F, 55)

animals start contracting the virus and then it goes back to humans in which it turns far worse and kills 90% of the worlds population and becomes kind of an apocalypse. (M, 52)

I have dreams of the world ending, people going crazy and in all the turmoil im trying to get my older children home safely and they can’t get home. (F, 50)

I was homeless, hungry and scared. Everyone in the world was sick, it was coronavirus mutated and turned everyone into zombies. They were trying to kill me by touching me. I had no way to survive even if I avoided being touched. Woke up just before I died of hunger sickness. Been having very weird dreams lately. (M, 18)

Normal life? It seems hard to imagine that life will ever again feel calm and normal. Some dreams are peering through the darkness of the present to envision better possibilities in the future.

A normal day in the life, social distancing, no negative emotions. (F, 47)

I had a dream that we were attending a party for a friend’s baby. Instead of all of us going in person, we all had computers set up with some kind of FaceTime app. We celebrated the birthday this way online instead of in person because of the outbreak. (F, 41)

I dreamed I opened a drawer and found a bunch of masks. I was very happy. (F, 61)

Note: this post was first published in Psychology Today, April 12, 2020.

More Dream Recall During the Covid-19 Pandemic

More Dream Recall During the Covid-19 Pandemic by Kelly BulkeleyA new survey shows a rise in dream recall, especially among younger people.  In the past month, about 30% of the American adult population has experienced an increased frequency of dream recall. Twice as many younger people (ages 18-34) as older people (55+) are remembering more dreams than usual.

Those are among the initial findings from a new survey I commissioned from YouGov, to get a quick snapshot of how people’s dreams have responded to the Covid-19 outbreak. Field work for the online survey was conducted April 1-3, 2020, with 2,477 American adults. The results have been weighted to approximate the US adult population.

Overall, 11% of the respondents to this survey said their dream recall had “increased a lot,” and 18% said it had “increased somewhat.” Only 4% said their dream recall had “decreased a lot,” and 3% “decreased somewhat.” A majority of people, 65%, reported no change in their dream recall.

The people whose dream recall has been most impacted are younger people, ages 18-34. Their recall increased a lot (18%) or somewhat (22%), compared to the older group of 55+ whose recall increased a lot (5%) or somewhat (14%). People ages 35-54 were in the middle, with 10% increased a lot and 18% increased somewhat.

With the help of research psychologist Michael Schredl, an additional analysis of the raw, unweighted responses showed that, when age is factored in, there are no additional correlations between increased dream recall frequency and the demographic variables of gender, ethnicity, education, or presidential approval.

It is worth noting that younger people also reported less dream recall than other age groups, with 7% of people 18-34 saying their dream recall had decreased a lot, and 5% decreased somewhat. The corresponding figures for people 35-54 are 3% and 3%, and for 55+, 2% and 2%.

Further analysis will hopefully reveal deeper patterns in these data, but for now it seems clear that the Covid-19 outbreak has impacted the dream lives of younger people much more strongly than older people. At least three possible explanations for this difference come to mind.

First, many previous studies have shown that young people in general have higher dream recall compared to older people. Perhaps it makes sense that during a time of collective crisis, younger people’s dreams would be more sensitive to change and disruption, since they are already remembering more dreams to begin with.

Second, the economic and social disruptions of the past month may have taken an especially hard toll on younger people, who tend to have fewer financial resources and depend more on urban social activities than older people. Younger people right now may be more exposed to the severe uncertainties and dislocations of the pandemic, generating a host of negative emotions that would likely spill into their sleep and dream lives. Stress, anxiety, and trauma are well-known triggers for poor sleep and unsettled dreaming.

Third, dreams do not simply reflect our present difficulties; they also imagine new possibilities and alternative paths into the future. This is the visionary, creative problem-solving aspect of dreaming. Perhaps younger people, with their naturally high dream recall and longer time horizons, have been stimulated by this crisis to even more dreaming than usual, precisely because of the urgent need for deeper wisdom and visionary guidance to lead us forward.

A final thought: The survey did not include participants younger than 18, but given the trend line among the three age groups, these findings raise the distinct possibility that children and teenagers up to the age of 17 are experiencing the most disrupted dreaming of all. Future research will have to verify that inference, but it might be worthwhile for parents, teachers, and therapists to consider the pandemic’s distinctive impact on children, not just in their waking lives but in their sleep and dreaming, too.

Next, I will post initial results from studying a collection of pandemic-related dream narratives, including several from January and February that anticipated significant developments in the crisis.

Note: this post first appeared in Psychology Today, April 9, 2020.