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Sleep and awe

Illustration of dreams

The research is clear: The quality and quantity of your sleep has a major impact on your performance at work.

But new studies from UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School researchers suggest that the importance of sleep isn’t merely physiological.

Dreams, it turns out, can increase personal resilience and the ability to make progress toward work goals – even in cases where someone has gotten poor or inadequate sleep.

Casher Belinda, a PhD student, and Michael Christian, professor and area chair of organizational behavior, conducted three studies with hundreds of subjects to examine the link between dreams and employee resilience. They share their findings in “A Spillover Model of Dreams and Work Behavior: How Dream Meaning Ascription Promotes Awe and Employee Resilience” in the Academy of Management Journal.

Belinda and Christian explore how finding meaning in dream experiences can induce feelings of awe. And those feelings, in turn, promote resilience and greater goal progress at work.

“At first I was dubious that dreams would have such an effect,” Christian says. “What we showed in a few studies was that indeed it does – that dreams can have an effect.”

“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.

The researchers highlight how feelings of awe could contribute to resilience at work and suggests practical ways individuals and organizations might harness the power of awe.

Awesome dreams

The emotion of awe is one of the fastest and most powerful ways to stimulate change, psychology literature shows. And dreams, sometimes, can be a source of feelings of awe.

Belinda and Christian wondered if dream-induced awe could, therefore, affect how people behave at work.

In their studies, they surveyed people working full time – both in the morning and at the end of the workday – and asked them to describe their dreams, emotions and work experiences.

In one study, they surveyed 318 people who had opted in to complete a Thursday morning survey. Those who remembered and reported finding positive meaning in their dreams experienced greater awe that morning, which in turn was related to increased resilience.

In a second study, they recruited new participants each week for five weeks and asked them to fill out two surveys – one in the morning after waking, and one in the afternoon toward the end of their workday. Here, too, people who recalled and ascribed positive meaning to their dreams experienced more awe and reported greater resilience in the afternoon.

And, importantly, that resilience led to greater progress on work goals.

Finally, in a third study, they asked 430 participants to fill out surveys in the morning and afternoon for two weeks to see if feelings of awe and subsequent resilience varied with dreaming activity and the meaning ascribed to those dreams. They also explored the role of curiosity as a moderating factor.

The link between finding positive meaning in dreams and feeling awe held true, as with the other studies.

In this study, however, Belinda and Christian found that the resilience effect was much stronger for people who were higher in “epistemic curiosity” – the desire to explore new ideas and facts – than those who were less curious.

Across all the studies, the researchers found that about 40% of people recalled their dreams on any given day, and that most people recall their dreams one or more times each week.

Impact on work

The studies by Belinda and Christian suggest that the impact of dreams on our waking lives, especially in the context of work, is an untapped vein that calls for further exploration. The connection between awe and resilience and productivity also suggests that awe is an emotion that deserves more research, particularly in the context of the workplace.

Their research also adds a new dimension to what scientists know about resilience. The standard model is that people are more resilient because they’re able to manage their feelings during times of stress.

But the research by Belinda and Christian points to the inoculating effect of awe, suggesting employers and individuals can prepare themselves for potential stressors by seeking out experiences that stimulate awe.

For individuals and employers, their research has practical implications.

First, for individuals, keeping a dream journal – a notebook to write down dreams you remember when you awake – can help you remember dreams and find meaning in them, an important part of inducing awe.

Belinda notes that there’s also evidence people can influence –with practice – what kinds of dreams they have by envisioning the kinds of dreams they would like to have before sleep.

For organizations, the research reinforces the power of awe to change how people behave and inoculate them against stress – even the lack of sleep. Belinda and Christian suggest that incorporating nature into the workplace is one way for organizations to increase feelings of awe at work, given that nature is a common source of awe.

Another source of awe might be storytelling by executives. Past research on awe indicates the emotion can be stimulated by perceptions of fame, authority and prestige – qualities that senior executives might have.