Dreams can spill over into the real world, influence productivity at work

NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Dreams often fade away after waking up, but a sizable portion of people can still recall their dreams as they begin their workday. Now, researchers from the University of Notre Dame have found that when someone remembers a dream from the night before, many can’t help but draw connections between their dreams and their waking lives. Those connections, real or not, then end up altering how they think, feel, and act at work.

The team at UND, including lead author Casher Belinda, assistant professor of management at Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, and Michael Christian from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, explain that earlier research reveals roughly 40 percent of the working population recalls their dreams on an average morning.

“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,” Prof. Belinda says in a university release. “This makes subsequent work stressors seem less daunting, bolstering resilience and productivity throughout the workday.”

“People experience awe when they undergo something vast — something that challenges their understanding or way of thinking about things,” the study author continues. “These experiences can come in different forms, whether physical, such as when witnessing aurora borealis, or conceptual, such as when grasping the implications of a grand theory. Awe often borders on the extremes or upper bounds of other emotions, for example, when people experience profound gratitude or admiration. Dreams are conceptually vast experiences that have a striking capacity to elicit feelings of awe.”

Man daydreaming at work desk, happy
A man working from home (© fizkes – stock.adobe.com)

Researchers conducted a total of three studies encompassing roughly 5,000 morning-of reports of dream recall among full-time employees. They released a morning-of field study, a single-day morning-to-afternoon study, and a two-week experience sampling study.

These projects discovered that the relationships persisted even after researchers accounted for how much or how well people slept. This suggests that the psychological consequences of recalling and finding meaning in a dream could sometimes offset or mitigate the physiological consequences of poor sleep.

On the surface, dreams may sound like the opposite of a very real workday, but researchers explain that many people are dreaming vividly mere minutes or hours before beginning their professional day. This research shows that when we remember our dreams – which to our sleeping minds are very real – they can influence and set the stage for the rest of our day.

“We arrive at work shortly after interacting with deceased loved ones, narrowly escaping or failing to escape traumatic events and performing acts of immeasurable ability,” Prof. Belinda explains. “Regardless of our personal beliefs about dreams, these experiences bleed into and affect our waking lives — including how productive we are at work.”

Woman sitting at a desk overwhelmed with paperwork
(Photo by Yan Krukau from Pexels)

For example, let’s say you remember an awe-inspiring or meaningful dream one morning. Later that same day in the afternoon, your boss tells you to conduct 10 more interviews than you were expecting. Despite the extra work, your recent dream may help you put everything into perspective. Study authors say dreams may help workers realize there’s a bigger world out there and they are just part of it or recognize the interconnected nature of everything.

“Harnessing the benefits of awe may prove invaluable to organizations,” Prof. Belinda adds. “And one of our primary goals was to understand how to do so.”

Of course, researchers stress that everyone’s number one priority should be to get a good night’s sleep. While it’s true that dreams occur during all stages of sleep, Prof. Belinda explains that the most vivid dreams occur during REM sleep. That phase of sleep tends to take place late in a given sleep cycle. So, study authors recommend getting as much sufficient, high-quality sleep as you can to get the most out of your dreams.

They also suggest the use of sleep-tracking devices that indicate when and how much time is spent in REM sleep for anyone looking improve their sleep schedules and perhaps experience more awe-inspiring dreams.

“Also, keep a dream journal to allow meaningful dreams to stick with you,” Prof. Belinda comments. “Recording dreams gives them repeated opportunities to elicit beneficial emotions and make connections between dreams.”

Meanwhile, the research team has a suggestion for managers and employees as well: Promote the “awe experience” at work as much as possible. Besides just dreams, other elicitors of awe include nature, art, music and exposure to senior leaders. These experiences can help increase productivity at work.

The study is published in the Academy of Management Journal.

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About the Author

John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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