By Yvonne Milosevic
Few people debate the virtues of sleep. Or about how getting enough of it improves our cognitive performance at work or school. But researchers at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School have looked at slumber from an unexpected angle. They wanted to learn whether what we dream might affect our work performance. Specifically, they suspected that our dreams could play a role in how resilient we are.
UNC professor Michael Christian and Ph.D. student Casher Belinda conducted three studies with hundreds of participants to explore the connection between dreams and employee resilience. They surveyed people in the morning and at the end of the workday and had them describe their dreams, emotions, and work experiences.
They found that around 40% of people frequently remembered their dreams. Furthermore, most people recalled their dreams at least once a week.
“That emotional experience you can have from your dreams—right when you wake up—can really set the tone for your day and has more of an impact than people realize,” Belinda says.
Those who remembered and reported finding positive meaning in their dreams felt greater awe that morning, which was related to increased resilience.
“At first I was dubious that dreams would have such an effect,” says Christian, a professor of organizational behavior. “What we showed in a few studies was that indeed it does.”
Their findings, shared in the Academy of Management Journal, also show that dreams can help us progress toward work goals—even after a night of bad or too little sleep.
The Dream and Awe Connection
Since the beginning of time, humans have experienced moments of awe. We feel awed by the power of nature, a moving piece of music, or Stephen Curry’s record-shattering three-pointers.
Dreams themselves are portals of awe. In the dream state, our minds are open to endless possibilities when we let go of rational processing. Neuroscientists have discovered that dreaming boosts creativity, improves memory, and helps you plan your future. Research on awe from UC Berkeley has found that people persist longer on complex puzzles after watching brief videos showing vast images of Earth.
So, how can you harness the power of dreams and awe to reach your goals? The UNC researchers offer a few suggestions. First, start by keeping a dream journal. You can use paper and pen or a phone app if that’s easier. As soon as you wake up, record as many dream details as you can remember. The particulars will slip away within a few minutes, so speed is essential.
Do it every day, even if it’s only a line or two or just an image you remember. Eventually, this habit will help you process emotions, spark creativity, and become more self-aware. Finding meaning in your dreams is a vital part of inducing awe.
Belinda notes that with practice, people can influence their dream experiences by envisioning the dreams they would like to have before going to sleep. When you’re experiencing a lucid dream, researchers believe you’re changing your brain’s neuroplasticity—aka the ability to rewire itself. That can improve your ability to handle tasks and can lead to greater resilience at work.
Get Outside More
Belinda and Christian also suggest that organizations incorporate retreats in nature—a frequent source of awe—into the workplace culture. There’s ample evidence that being in contact with nature can improve an employee’s sense of well-being and productivity in the office.
Learning more about how our subconscious mind can impact our careers is fascinating. In truth, these studies have only just scratched the surface of our understanding of the connections between dreams, awe, and our work lives.
We’ll leave you with this salient quote from the famed British chemist and academic Douglas H. Everett: “There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other.”