Your dreams (and nightmares) are telling you about your career and life
When I go to parties and tell people that I’m a psychologist, people sometimes ask me about topics such as the meaning of dreams. You probably know plenty of people in your life who are really interested in dreams and their meanings. Or perhaps you’re fascinated in the content of your own dreams.
Some believe that dreams have hidden messages for us. For example, seeing a church or snakes or a forest or anything else is supposed to signify something special.
In reality, most modern day psychologists agree that the meaning of dreams cannot be reliably interpreted in such a fashion. Many psychologists believe that dreams are merely a random by-product of the human sleep cycle and that dreams have no purpose or meaning at all. However, another influential viewpoint – for example taken by Antti Revonsuo, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Turku in Finland – is that “the biological function of dreaming is to simulate threatening events, and to rehearse threat perception and threat avoidance” because “in the ancestral environment the constant nocturnal rehearsing of threat perception and threat-avoidance skills increased the probability of successful threat avoidance in real situations.”
In other words, dreams were probably more useful to our hunter-gatherer ancestors because it helped them to prepare for actual situations that they might face – dealing with snakes, animal attacks, droughts or other adverse weather events, angry tribespeople, and so on.
However, the latest research suggests that the content of dreams may have subtle messages for us after all. A pair of recent studies in the journal Motivation and Emotion looked at the most common recurring dreams reported by several hundred people. The research team also asked the participants to complete questionnaires measuring their psychological needs for autonomy, competence and social connectedness.
The researchers noticed that people who felt more frustrated in their daily lives tended to report having dreams that were more negatively themed – for example they often said that their dreams were frightening or that sad or angry emotions were expressed in their dreams. People who felt frustrated by their day-to-day lives were also more likely to have recurring dreams in which they were falling, being attacked or failing in some way.
To be clear, this new research does not say that specific images in your dreams must always signify the same thing. However, it does suggest that having more negative dreams – and remember that this is not just scary dreams but also dreams that feel angry or sad – may reflect that you are having a challenging time of things during your waking hours.
So if you’re having distressing or even just moderately negative dreams, ask yourself to what extent three major psychological needs are being met. In particular, consider three points:
- Autonomy is a psychological need for freedom and control over our own lives. To what extent are you feeling trapped or stifled in your career or life? And what might you do about it?
- Competence is a psychological need to feel that you are improving yourself and mastering new skills. To what degree are you feeling capable, skilled and qualified at everything you need to do in both work and life? And, if you feel that there’s a gap, how might you help yourself to feel more proficient over time?
- Social connectedness is the need to feel that you have friends, family, allies and supporters around you. What might be missing in this part of your life? And what might you do to rectify the situation?
And if you decide to change some aspect of your life, do consider making a proper plan so that you can achieve your goals.