Study finds some waking states are associated with the emotional content of dreams

People who are anxious tend to have dreams that include more negative emotions, according to new research published in Scientific Reports. But the opposite is true for those with a greater peace of mind.

“In general, one of my main research interests is the emotional content of dreams. Most people dream every night and emotions are central to our dream experiences,” said study author Pilleriin Sikka of the Turku Brain and Mind Center at the University of Turku.

“But there are lots of unanswered questions: Why do we dream? Can dream emotions shed light on the possible functions of dreaming? Do different emotions just randomly appear in our dreams (as a byproduct of our brain activity during sleep) or are they somehow related to our waking experiences?”

“One way to try to answer these questions is to explore whether dream emotions are related to our waking well-being. The idea that the content of dreams somehow reflects well-being is of course nothing new, but when we look at what kind of scientific evidence exists, then we see that it is rather biased.”

“Most studies have focused on so-called ill-being, looking at what kind of dreams individuals with different kinds of symptoms of psychopathology have,” Sikka said. “And there is indeed evidence that such individuals have more nightmares and negatively toned dreams in general. But we know very little about the dreams of people who do not have any diagnoses or symptoms of mental disorders. What are their dreams like? Do happier people have more positively toned dreams?”

In the study, 44 participants completed a daily dream diary every morning for 21 days. They also completed surveys designed to measure their overall well-being, symptoms of ill-being, and sociodemographic factors.

Some aspects of ill-being and well-being — such as depressive symptoms and overall life satisfaction — did not appear to be related to dream content.

But Sikka and her colleagues found that people’s waking states were reflected in their dreams in some cases. People with greater peace of mind reported more positive affect in their dreams, while those with more symptoms of anxiety reported more negative affect in their dreams.

“Our dream emotions are not just a totally random creation of our brains and minds, but they are related to our waking ill-being and well-being,” Sikka told PsyPost. “Those who are more anxious in their waking life also experience more negative emotions in their dreams, whereas those who have more peace of mind while awake have more positive dream emotions. This also means that the content of dream reports may reflect a person’s mental health.”

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“This particular study is correlational, meaning we found out that there is a relationship between waking well-being and the emotional content of dreams. However, the study does not tell us anything about causality: does increasing one’s well-being or happiness lead to more positive emotions in dreams, or are positive dream emotions somehow beneficial to our waking well-being?” Sikka explained.

“There is evidence that REM sleep may help regulate emotions but we need more studies to find out whether dreams and the emotional experiences in dreams have any important role.”

In the study, people with a greater peace of mind tended to agree with statements such as “I have peace and harmony in my mind” and disagree with statements such as “It is difficult for me to feel settled.”

“I think the concept ‘peace of mind’ is in itself important. In the Western culture we typically associate well-being or happiness with feeling joyful, satisfying our needs, or pursuing some meaningful goals. However, according to different philosophical and spiritual traditions (especially those in the Eastern culture), there is more to happiness,” Sikka said.

“Happiness or well-being is a state of inner peace and harmony that is more durable and less affected by life’s circumstances, something that can be achieved by accepting all kinds of experiences and cultivating self-regulation. It is interesting that it was only peace of mind, but not the other ‘traditional’ aspects of well-being, that was related to the emotional content of dreams. So there seems to be something unique about this aspect of well-being.”

The study, “Peace of mind and anxiety in the waking state are related to the affective content of dreams“, was authored by Pilleriin Sikka, Henri Pesonen, and Antti Revonsuo.