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Want a Better Life? All You Have to Do Is Dream

dreaming for a better life

“To sleep, perchance to dream.” ~ William Shakespeare

Although this snippet from the famous soliloquy rendered by Hamlet relates to the main character’s struggle with suicidal thoughts, it highlights the importance of the nightly occurrence of dreaming. Sufficient and deep sleep is a biological imperative in order to replenish energy stores. Beyond the physical benefits, there are psychological needs that are met in slumber.

According to Andrew Weil, M.D., Founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, there is a correlative effect between insomnia and depression. He ponders the question, are people depressed because they can’t sleep, or do they have difficulty sleeping because they feel depressed?

The DSM-V defines insomnia as, “a combination of both dis-satisfaction with sleep and a significant negative impact on daytime functioning.” Dis-satisfaction with sleep is described as difficulty engaging in and/or maintaining sleep on at least three nights per week for at least three months.

The Downside of Staying Up

  • Fatigue
  • Poor concentration
  • Mood inconsistency
  • Lack of ability to perform normal daily activities
  • Confusion
  • Memory lapses
  • Auditory and visual hallucinations
  • Weight gain (sleep deprivation affects hormones regulating hunger — ghrelin and leptin — and stimulates the appetite.)

Matthew Walker, director of UC Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory and senior author of a study reported in Current Biology (October 22, 2007), has found that sleep deprivation sparks the part of the brain that is related to depression, anxiety and other psychiatric disorders.

“All signs point to sleep doing something for emotional regulation and emotional processing,” Walker said.

The Mechanics of Dreams

There are two recorded types of sleep, slow wave sleep (SWS) and REM sleep, both of which can provide the movie screen on which we can observe our dreams.

Michael J. Breus, Ph.D., says, “Typically, a person will spend two hours or more a night dreaming, experiencing somewhere in the range of 3-6 discrete dreams over the course of a night’s rest. The length of dreams can vary significantly, but most dreams appear to last from 5-20 minutes. The vast majority of dreams we experience will — for most of us — never be remembered.”

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Although some people report that they never dream, unless there is chronic sleep deprivation, it is a rare person who fits that category. The reality may be that they have limited dream recall.

Ways to Increase Dream Recall

  • Keep a journal or voice recorder by your bed and document your experiences.
  • If you have a bed partner, share the nocturnal imagery with them upon awakening.
  • Set an intention before sleep to have meaningful dreams, asking for answers to particular questions.

Dream Inspired Creations

  • Carl Jung’s The Red Book showcases his dreams.
  • Edgar Allen Poe wrote his prolific poetry, including “Dream-Land” and “A Dream Within a Dream,” based on his closed-eye activity.
  • Paul McCartney reports penning the classic song “Yesterday” in his sleep.

What Is Lucid Dreaming?

According to Deirdre Barrett, author of the book The Committee of Sleep: How Artists, Scientists and Athletes Use Dreams for Creative Problem-Solving — and How You Can, Too (Crown, 2001) and assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, “The literal definition (of dreams) is a narrative experience that occurs during sleep.”

Lucid dreaming places the dreamer in a position of power. Imagine being chased by a lion in your dream. If you take charge, you can turn and face the creature or you can shrink it into a harmless kitten as it meows rather than roars. You might decide to tell yourself to wake up and shake off the heart pounding panic that might have ensued had you remained ensconced in it. Conversely, you could have a strong desire to remain in a dream in which you are being showered with passionate kisses.

A Dreamer’s Primer

Although there are books that contain copious amounts of dream symbols from various traditions, they are simply guides, rather than offering definitive answers. The meaning of the metaphors is unique to the dreamer and are often based on prevailing beliefs and what occurred on the day of the dream.

A Dream Interpreted

A successful professional woman, who admits to workaholism and a tendency toward co-dependence who has a recent history of health challenges, including a heart attack, reported her dream to Ken Kaplan, M.Ed., who works with clients to assist them in making sense of what sometimes seems confounding. In it, she observed Robin Williams (after his death) surprising a young girl at her birthday party with carrot cake cupcakes. In the next scene, the dreamer was standing between Williams and a white stallion, with her hand on the horse’s heart. The horse towered over her. Williams has his arm around her and the horse is leaning into her side.

They used the Dream Interview Technique developed by Gayle Delaney, Ph.D., to work through the components of the dream, with the idea that each aspect relates to some part of the dreamer. It encourages a dialog with each one, as if it is a role play.

Kaplan says, “Most dreams occur in three layers, the immediate trigger, the predominant set of feelings, thoughts and beliefs going on at the time of the dream, and the life issues underlying the first two. This dream clearly is about self-nurturing and healing but not all dreams are as readily apparent. Furthermore, it contains issues of transition that this woman has been going through around self-nurturing.”

Following is the interpretation that the two of them discerned. On the day of the dream, the client visited an equine rescue farm to offer the healing modality of Reiki to horses, many of whom were wounded in their racetrack careers.
Kaplan explains, “There are three main characters in the dream besides the client who are to be addressed.”

Robin Williams

  • Williams was a public figure, as is the dreamer, one to her who was gifted (as she is), generous, bringing “relief” to others, and supporting people and causes. He mirrors her public work in philosophy and action which also spans many venues.
  • Williams style was “over the top,” incessant, and manic. This reflects her own outer work and public life before her heart attack — “all over the place,” doing too much, over extended, never slowing down for a breath.
  • Williams was a comic with nearly infinite persona or “masks” he created, often spontaneously. This mirrors the client’s need to present (in the past) different “faces” to people.
  • In addition, Williams is alive in the dream “resurrected.” This symbolizes a part of the dreamer that had been dispossessed or “buried” but now is returning to life.

The Little Girl

  • The Williams part, representing the adult, nurtures the inner child who by description, wants to play, have fun.
  • Children like cupcakes, while adults get slices of cake. This also signifies a shift in the dreamer’s life. By slowing down, she is now able to genuinely nurture herself more completely and truly and connect in a healthy way with her inner child. Again, if she had not already internalized this in waking life, it could not appear this way in the dream.

The Horse

  • The horse was present but not active until the end of the dream. The end is where the dream sharpens its focus on core issues and brings forth, often with great depth, its message. The dreaming mind strives to bring integration and wholeness through its communication. This is achieved for the dreamer by engaging in dialogue with the horse (a white stallion), which according to dream symbolism is indicative of masculine power.
  • First, he is wounded. Why? He says “I was free but got caught and captured. I became both a race horse and a work horse and often got beaten.” This “admission” from the “horse part of the client” links strongly to the over- extended, performing, never stopping, many-faced Robin Williams. A feeling of some despondency and exhaustion is indicated here. But the horse said more.
  • “When I was free I could sleep wherever I wanted and was always near the other horses. Now, by being in the stable, often I feel like a slave.”
  • Because both Williams and the horse are male symbols, particularly the horse, two elements are in play. The client’s life has been dominated by her work life (which reflects the male side-although Williams is on her left in the dream, indicating the feminine, nurturing influence of that aspect). But as Kaplan and the dreamer talked, the horse also represented an inner conflict over independence vs “domesticity” in intimate relationships.
  • However, the dream points toward resolution of all these issues. The client is giving Reiki to the horse’s heart. So in line with the major theme of self-nurturing, she is giving healing energy not just to the physical heart, but also the “heart of the matter.” The horse leans into the dreamer, reflecting her ability to begin to lean on others and other parts of herself, rather than being the “workhorse” who does it all by herself.

The dream ends with Williams, the woman and the horse hugging one another but forming a perfect triangle. The triangle expresses equality, no side is greater than the other. Here the dream is inviting her to consider that the belief systems she has held for so long that have resulted in this exhausted over extension, “independent but paying a great price,” might be reexamined and that all the things she wants from life can be attained. There is now an emotional direction to focus on and choices are opened up as to how much of the old way she wants to retain, and how different choices may now be available. One can have both. Intimacy and freedom, power and interdependence, do not have to be in conflict.

The dreamer’s response to the dream was that it showcased her internal and external conflict in both interpersonal and professional realms. She saw herself as needing to be all things to all people as perhaps Williams did, a chameleon who changed her stripes to fit in. She viewed the horse as a disenfranchised part of herself that she wished she could tame. What came to mind was the term ‘wild horses,’ as representative of her own temperament that she sometimes attempted to rein in. The carrot cake cupcakes signified sweetness in small bits which was all she could absorb at times. She also acknowledged that she was healing herself as she healed the horse. She awoke with a sense of peace and was able to put the imagery into perspective and positive application.

Dreamcatcher photo available from Shutterstock

Want a Better Life? All You Have to Do Is Dream

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW

Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW is a journalist and interviewer, licensed social worker, interfaith minister, radio host and best-selling author.

APA Reference
Weinstein, E. (2020). Want a Better Life? All You Have to Do Is Dream. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 14, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 14 Jan 2020 (Originally: 16 Feb 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 14 Jan 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.