I tend to have very vivid dreams. I recently dreamed that I hit a home run at Wrigley Field as a member of my favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs, for example. But I also dreamed the clown from It came to haunt me at the top of every hour as I roamed a crowded casino.
I’ve always wondered why I dream up such things, and now, a new study might provide some insight. The research links happy dreams with peace of mind while awake, and bad dreams with anxious waking feelings. The research could be useful for explaining why we dream, and eventually help treat mental health conditions associated with disturbed dreaming.
“There’s a principle going back to [psychologist] Alfred Adler that we dream what we live and we live what we dream, and I think he was right on the button,” Stanley Krippner, a psychologist at Saybrook University who was not involved with the new study, told Gizmodo. Krippner believes dreams are a kind of highlight reel that reminds us which things in real life made us happy or anxious. “When you’re happy during the day you have happy dreams at night. The function of dreams is adaptive—remember what gave you peace of mind, and repeat it again and again. This is also what the findings of this study show us.”
Various research suggests dreams could be byproducts of our brains storing memories and learning, a strategy to prepare us for real-life danger, or an outlet for our minds to work through heavy emotional experiences. They are also linked to mental health—people who have anxiety and depression often have high incidences of nightmares.
“Knowing the nature of dream emotions and how they are related to our waking well-being may help shed light on the possible functions of dreams,” Pilleriin Sikka, a study author, psychologist, and neuroscientist at the University of Turku in Finland, told Gizmodo.
To measure how dream content is linked to emotional state and well-being, a research team asked 47 volunteers to take a handful of standardized questionnaires to assess each person’s ill-being or well-being. They asked questions related to anxiety, depression, life satisfaction—both on the whole and in certain domains like work and relationships—and peace of mind.
To measure peace of mind, the survey asked participants to score how much they agreed with statements like “I have peace and harmony in my mind,” and “it is difficult for me to feel settled.”
To link overall ill- and well-being with dreams, each volunteer also kept a “dream diary” for three weeks, in which they jotted down the details of their dreams immediately after waking up. Volunteers and researchers separately rated the dreams for certain positive and negative emotions, like amusement, gratitude, and love, and scorn, disgust, and hate.
Using that data, researchers found that people with high scores for peace of mind had more pleasant, positive dreams, as noted in the study published Friday in Scientific Reports. Conversely, people who scored high for anxiety had many more disturbing, negative dreams.
The study is preliminary, and it has limitations—it almost exclusively relies on volunteer-reported data. People could be purposefully or accidentally leaving things out of their dream logs, like dreams they found embarrassing, for example. “The dream diary is a limitation,” said Krippner. “But it gives us a lot of data and is certainly a good beginning.”
Other studies have found up to 80 percent of people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder have nightmares related to their trauma, and people who have schizophrenia-related anxiety have more hostile and apprehensive dreams, so this study’s results aren’t that surprising—anxious people tend to have anxious dreams.
Still, Krippner told Gizmodo that studies that focus on how healthy people dream are both crucial and in short supply. Most dream research is performed on people who suffer from various psychological problems.
“Studies like these have very practical consequences,” he said. “It’s important to find out what makes healthy people healthy.”