Dream Analysis and Positive Psychology
Dreams are the reservoir of emotional content, both positive emotions and, more frequently, negative emotions. Dream analysis is one of the foundational methods for delving into a patient's psychology. Both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung wrote volumes about the importance of dreams and using dream content in therapeutic processes. In the text, Working with Dreams and PTSD Nightmares, a foundational text in dream analysis training, approaches to dream analysis that stem from multiple approaches are discussed, including cognitive behavioral approaches, humanistic approaches, transpersonal approaches, and psychodynamic approaches, among others (Lewis & Krippner, (eds) 2016). It is important to note that while dream content and dream analysis are a part of many psychotherapeutic traditions, the field of positive psychology has not been noted in the literature, nor has the importance of exploring dreams either as a tool for understanding the subconscious or as a way of exploring or eliciting positive emotion.
Lopez et al. (2018) welcome us to the exploration of positive psychology by including an excerpt from Martin Seligman's article in the APA monitor that reminds us of the forgotten mission of psychology, which Seligman identifies as "making the lives of all people better" and "nurturing genius." Positive psychology seeks to discover what makes life worth living and looks to discover not what is wrong and how to fix it but rather to define what is right and how to use it to compensate for the deficit. Positive psychology uses an approach that, while seemingly not applied in the area of dream analysis, can be used to examine dreams as a source of positive emotion and insight.
The Emotional Content of Dreams
Dream content can provide useful information about the individual, not just in terms of what is wrong or needs to be changed, but also in terms of discovering new sources of strength, inspiration, and resilience that can help the individual become more capable and enjoy life more fully. Through dream analysis and exploration utilizing concepts from positive psychology, it becomes possible to identify strengths that were previously overlooked or neglected. Dream analysis using a positive psychological approach provides greater insights into strengths, resources available to the individual, and potential for growth than traditional psychodynamic approaches.
It has been widely reported that dreams tend to have more negative emotional content than positive emotional content (Nielson et al., 1991). One of the few studies that look at dreams in the context of positive psychology notes that those with emotional traits associated with positive emotions do have more positive emotions in their dream content (Gilchrist et al., 2007). In this study, Gilchrist and colleagues note that waking emotional states impact nighttime dreams. This is important because it is believed that one of the purposes of dreams is to help process emotional content. So if we can learn to detect dream content that makes us feel good and understand what the dream is trying to tell us from a positive psychological point of view, we can use dreams to find new sources of strength and resilience.
Sterpenich et al. (2020) looked specifically at fear in dreams. Nightmares are common in children, night terrors are related to nightmares, and even one of the diagnostic criteria for PTSD addresses nightmares and unpleasant dreams. Sterpenich and his colleagues found that feeling afraid in dreams is linked to better responses to threatening signals when you are awake. This study confirms that there is a link between emotional processes that happen while we sleep and emotional brain activities that happen when we wake up. It also shows that emotions in dreams and emotions when we are awake activate the same neural substrates. From a positive psychology perspective, dreams are an opportunity for us to explore our emotional states and identify how we can use those states to gain greater insight into our emotions. Even nightmares can lead to the goal of positive psychology, which is to help people make the lives of all people better.
Dreams provide an opportunity for exploration of the positive aspects of emotion. Positive psychology provides an approach that allows us to examine dreams to discover strengths, resources, and potential for growth. By using a positive psychological approach to dream analysis, it is possible to find strengths that were previously missed or ignored and to understand how emotions in dreams affect things that happen in real life. By looking at dream content from a positive psychological point of view, people can find sources of strength and growth that will help them live more fully and enjoy life more than ever before. People can acquire valuable insights into their own emotional states by paying attention to the links between their dream emotions and their waking feelings.
Insight, passion, and power may all be gleaned from one's dreams. The application of positive psychology to the study of dreams can help uncover previously unrecognized wellsprings of strength and motivation. Insights into our own emotional states and their effects in the actual world can be discovered as well, allowing us to improve our decision-making and broaden our perspective. Successful psychological practice relies on an appreciation of the correspondence between dream states and waking life.
Dream Analysis Methods
Nongard (2022) has proposed a process for dream analysis that uses a five-step process denoted by the acronym HEART. The first step is to highlight the dream's content and then explore the emotional content of the dream. This is then followed by identifying the archetypes, images, and symbols of the dream, which yields the ability to reframe the dream experience's elements or even use the rehearsal technique often associated with nightmare resolution. The final step is to test, trust, transfer, and take action, which allows the individual to experiment with how changes in attitude, belief systems, and behaviors can be implemented in real life.
From a cognitive behavioral approach to dream analysis, the therapist works with a client to discover the relationship between dream content and the aspirations of the client (Montangero, 2016). Further exploration then focuses on developing an awareness of the links between ideas, emotions, and behaviors, which is a basic strategy in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Montangero (2016) shares that dream analysis is a great tool for discovering cognitive distortion and facilitating cognitive restructuring. It is interesting to note that the early developers of CBT did not avoid the importance of dreams in the process of therapy, with the development of CBT actually predicated on the results of dream research (Schiffman, n.d.). The early founders of the movement, Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, convinced themselves that dreams were a rich source for addressing the client’s concerns. Schiffman (n.d.) notes that dreams can be integrated into the CBT process when negative emotions are present in those dreams as an antecedent event using them to examine what cognitive distortions in the daytime world are feeding into the nighttime dream experience.
Cross-Cultural Issues in Dream Analysis and Positive Psychology
It is important to note that dream analysis cross-culturally is a complicated issue, yet one that can be addressed through the application of positive psychology. Palmquist (2016) explores dream interpretation in different cultures, noting how the practice is culturally rooted. Palmquist (2016) further explains how dreams are often used as symbols for predicting the future or particular events within a culture. Some indigenous cultures have used dreams for healing work, problem-solving, and spiritual guidance. Gander et al. (2016) note that no gender differences should be expected in the application of positive psychology intervention but also notes that positive psychology offerings, like dream analysis, have attracted female participants in greater numbers.
It is also important to note that cross-culturally, dreams have held significance since the earliest recorded times. The biblical account of Joseph, where he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams to save his people, illustrates this (King James Bible, 1769/2017). Dream analysis has been used in literature and throughout history as an important tool for understanding our inner lives and fostering personal growth and development. In China, one of the great historical and philosophical texts is from the Duke of Zhou and purports to explain dream meaning in the context of future life experiences (Zhou, 2022).
From a legal and ethical perspective, there are a few issues that would emerge in using integrated positive psychology techniques and dream analysis. Both approaches are well established and without harmful side effects, and both approaches are well within the scope of practice for most helping professionals in North America. Therefore, it is important to note that dream analysis can be used as a simple tool to help bring more insight and understanding into a client's life without any significant associated legal or ethical risks.
The Techniques of Positive Psychology-Based Therapy
The goal of the techniques in positive psychology is to elicit a state of well-being, and they are grouped as positive psychological interventions (PPIs) that enhance existing coping strategies, resources, and abilities that the client already has, as well as equipping clients with new skills, attitudes, and perspectives on life (van Agteren et al., 2021). Well-being therapy uses techniques like focusing on strengths, practicing gratitude, giving positive answers, keeping a gratitude journal, and consciously focusing on what's right, even when there are problems (van Agteren et al., 2021). Positive psychology-based dream analysis allows us to find resources for growth in our dreams. Interventions that use the dream experience to target well-being directly include narrative reflections and the reinterpretation of the dream's content.
Narrative reflections involve exploring the stories in a client’s life and how they have shaped their thoughts, emotions, and behaviors (Sparrow, 2016), as is often done with journaling as part of positive psychology interventions. Dream analysis provides another layer to this type of exploration by looking at meaning within the emotional context of a dream and creating new meaning from it that can be used in everyday life.
The effectiveness of these approaches to positive psychology is significant. A meta-analysis of the efficacy of interventions rooted in positive psychology (Koydemir et al., 2021) found significant successes in increasing subjective well-being, happiness, and satisfaction when visualizing success, practicing kindness and gratitude, and focusing on strengths. They also noted that the longer the therapeutic process, the longer the effects of the positive psychology approaches. Because dream analysis is often an ongoing process where dreams are viewed as an ongoing experience and in a constellation to one another, these aspects of positive psychology can easily become elements of long-term therapeutic approaches. Dream analysis can provide insight into individual thoughts and help clients gain new perspectives on life through the reinterpretation of dream messages. It is a useful tool that can help people grow and make them feel good about themselves. In combination with other therapeutic strategies, it has the potential to be a powerful agent for change in an individual’s life.
Applying Positive Psychology in Dream Analysis
Even negative emotional content can become a part of positive psychology interventions. In Nongard's (2022) fourth step of the HEART process in dream analysis, Reframing and Rehearsing, negative emotions can be viewed as a learning experience, allowing the dreamer of negative content to explore and rehearse positive emotions. Even nightmares have a positive element; after all, whatever was causing worry or fear in a dream always ends by waking up. From this perspective, dreamers can reframe the fear in a nightmare as ending, and the end of fear gives way to a sense of safety, security, and well-being.
In this way, dream analysis can be a powerful and easy-to-use tool with roots in positive psychology. It allows us to find resources for growth in our dreams and gain insight into our own thoughts and emotions while allowing us to use the power of our imagination to create new perspectives on life. Using these techniques, we can work toward a state of subjective well-being and open up ways to grow and develop. Positive psychology-based dream analysis potentially allows us to uncover new ways of understanding ourselves and our lives, allowing for greater self-awareness and positive growth.
Gratitude has been shown to be an important element of well-being and positive psychology interventions (Cunha et al., 2019). A powerful way to use gratitude in dream analysis is to focus on the positive elements of a dream or even simply to express gratitude for having awareness of dreams. This can involve recognizing the personal strengths and resources that were used in the dream as well as any positive emotions or feelings that emerged from it. This can then be integrated into daily life through acts of kindness or gratitude journaling.
Overall, applying positive psychology principles to dream analysis effectively improves subjective well-being and develops self-awareness. It provides clients with insight into their own thoughts and emotions while allowing them to create new perspectives on life through imagination. Dream analysis, when combined with positive psychology techniques, can be a strategy for enhaning every aspect of living.
Grounding is another positive psychology practice (Nortje, 2020) that has applications in dream analysis psychology. Activities like concentrating on the sensation of the air passing through your nostrils or the warmth of the sun on your face can help bring attention back to the here and now. This method may be applied in the context of dream analysis to aid in deciphering a dream's meaning by bringing to light the dreamer's subjective perception of the dream's setting and sensory details.
Going back to the roots of positive psychology and Seligman's (2011) idea of PERMA—an acronym representing positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments—dream analysis can be used to help clients explore each area. Positive emotions arising from the dreams can be explored and developed. Interpersonal relationships with oneself and others might be further developed as a result of increased self-awareness. A deeper meaning in life can be discovered due to insights gained from the dream analysis process, and accomplishments may come from setting goals based on these discoveries.
Csikszentmihalyi (2016) defines flow as " the combination of high perception of one's own skills and feeling of challenge emerging from the task " and is associated with optimal performance. Dream analysis clients are clients who often seek this approach to develop higher levels of awareness, integrate difficult feelings, or increase creativity. These clients can use dream analysis to access a state of flow by exploring dreams and discovering new pathways of meaning. This has the potential to increase engagement with life, create positive emotions from newfound awareness, and foster relationships resulting from increased self-awareness.
By incorporating positive psychology principles into dream analysis, we can explore our dreams in more meaningful ways that promote personal growth and well-being. Whether it is reframing negative, emotional content as learning experiences, focusing on the gratefulness of having awareness of dreams, or setting goals based on insights gained from the process, all these techniques have the potential to be powerful tools for creating new perspectives on life. With conscious effort, these techniques may help people find deeper meaning in their lives and open up pathways for personal growth.
There is no doubt that positive psychology interventions can be used in dream analysis psychotherapy with patients who seek to move from distressing emotions to positive emotions and with those who experience positive emotions to move to higher levels of internal resource states such as flow or peak performance. Stocks et al. (2020) demonstrate that lucid dreaming (a type of dream where one becomes aware of the dream process with the conscious mind and allows the dreamer to become, in some ways, the director of that dream) is associated with an elevated mood in the waking hours and overall increased a sense of well-being. But even without lucid dreaming, the benefits of dream content can be explored post-dream through various dream analysis processes, including Nongard's HEART process with humanistic approaches, CBT, and other modalities that lend themselves to positive psychology approaches becoming part of the process.
By exploring the content of our dreams, we can start to understand the underlying dynamics within ourselves, fostering a connection with our inner self. Dream analysis is a powerful tool for self-discovery and personal growth, and when combined with positive psychology interventions, it is believed can be an even more effective pathway toward self-awareness and well-being.
Dream analysis and positive psychology interventions both have a rich history in psychology. Dream analysis is a historic pillar in psychotherapy dating back to Jung and Freud, and positive psychology is considered the "fifth pillar" of psychotherapeutic methods (Cunha et al., 2019) and establishing lasting roots over the past 25 years. The combination of the two approaches has the potential to be an effective tool for self-discovery and personal growth as one moves toward greater well-being. Clients can experience increased self-awareness, deeper meaning in life, and better relationships with themselves and others. Furthermore, dream analysis is a powerful lens for accessing flow states which can potentially lead to optimal performance. With conscious effort, these techniques may help people find deeper meaning in their lives and open up pathways for personal growth.
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