You awaken in a cold sweat after a vivid dream in which you narrowly escape a ferocious wolf. After the snarling animal chases you down a dark, dead-end alley, you’re about to lose hope when a beam of light illuminates a hand reaching down to pull you to safety over a fence. Later, as you’re getting ready for work, you can’t help but wonder what the dream means and how it applies to a challenging situation you’re facing on the job.
Have you ever had a dream so vivid it sticks with you the next day, influencing your thoughts and behavior? On any given morning, about 40% of the working population recalls their dreams, according to research in the Academy of Management Journal. The study shows that connections people draw between their dreams and waking lives can alter how they think, feel, and act at work.
It’s long been recognized that physiological processes occurring during sleep — such as tissue repair and memory consolidation — can impact our cognitive function and behavior the next day. But much less attention has been paid to the impact of dreams. In three separate studies that encompassed 5,000 reports of dream recall in full-time employees, researchers led by Casher Belinda at the University of Notre Dame investigated the link between dreams and work behavior, in particular, resilience and goal progress.
Shortly after awakening, study participants reported on dreams they recalled, noting if they were positive or negative and whether they inspired a sense of awe — a feeling that arises when we acquire new information that changes the way we think about ourselves or the world around us. Participants also reflected on problems they were facing at work, possible causes of their dreams, and meanings they ascribed to them. At the end of the workday, participants completed questionnaires measuring their resilience and work goal progress during that day.
The researchers found that when participants ascribed positive meanings to their dreams and experienced a sense of awe, they showed higher resilience and goal progress during the workday. The relationship was strongest for employees with high levels of epistemic curiosity — those who welcome new information, even if it challenges their existing beliefs.
“Similar to epiphany, we found that connecting the dots between dreams and reality gives rise to awe — an emotion that sparks a tendency to think about ourselves and our experiences in the grand scheme of things,” Belinda says. “This makes subsequent work stressors seem less daunting, bolstering resilience and productivity throughout the workday.”
How can employees and organizations use this information to boost resilience and performance? The researchers suggest individuals keep a dream journal, use sleep tracking devices to increase time spent in REM sleep (when dreams occur), or envision the dream experiences they wish to have before going to bed. Employers can harness the “power of awe” by including nature, art, music, or storytelling in the workplace — and encouraging their employees to get plenty of high-quality sleep.