We visualized the dreams of over 1,000 Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic
“Yesterday is but today’s memory, tomorrow is today’s dream.”
— Kahlil Gibran
Can you recall your recent dreams? Have they been getting a little stranger since the pandemic? Maybe your business or child’s school closed its doors and that’s been on your mind at night? Perhaps the riots or the millions of Black Lives Matter protesters around the world have triggered different dreams at night. Or the death of George Floyd has you at a complete loss? Today’s list of things to think about truly does go on and on.
Even waking life in 2020 feels like a dream world –so how are actual dreams responding? To find out, we surveyed 1,020 people across the country who could recall at least one dream within the last three months, or since the pandemic struck. We asked them to describe the content, emotions, and even colors in their dreams and nightmares. All of this information was then given to graphic design artists so they could visibly depict what the average dream (or nightmare) looks like today. The differences in dreams between self-described Democrats and Republicans were quite startling, as were those across different generations. Though we could write their descriptions off as “just a dream,” things got much more real than that. Keep reading to see for yourself.
Politics of Bedtime
It seems as if everything from health to human rights has been politicized, and dreams were no exception. While those affiliated with the Republican and Democratic party did share the same top two fears overall – death and a significant other leaving –their nightmares stopped overlapping there, and the rest seemed to be dictated by their specific political leanings.
Beyond generalized death and a loved one departing, these were some of the top nightmares by political affiliation, at a glance:
- Being fired from work: 12.2%
- My city being looted: 9.3%
- My house being looted: 8.1%
- Riots: 8.1%
- My city being burned to the ground: 5.3%
- WWIII: 5.3%
- Gun violence: 11.6%
- Unrequited love: 10.7%
- Home invasion: 9.8%
- Police brutality: 9.6%
- Getting arrested: 7.9%
- Sexual assault: 7.4%
When we asked Republican respondents to describe the contents of their nightmares, we heard about personal job loss, their homes being looted, riots, and their cities being burned to the ground. This is certainly scary content, but it unfortunately doesn’t feel too far separated from reality. If we take Fox News to be the quintessential Republican news outlet, the search for “BLM,” for instance, does yield imagery and words like “we will burn this system down,” “stop shooting each other,” and “the mob attacking” among search-result headlines. One 54-year-old female Republican described her recent nightmare for us as one where “people I didn’t know had their faces covered. They were all screaming at each other, angry and running around the streets breaking windows.” The covered faces certainly present a modern image, particularly with mask requirements throughout the country.
When we make the same search for “BLM” on CNN, words like “fantastic” and “it’s a great time to be an American,” pervade headlines instead. And of course, those likely reading the content have nightmares composed of completely different things than Republicans. Democrats endured their own set of political horrors, sleeping in fear of gun violence, home invasions, police brutality, and getting arrested. Unfortunately, these horrifying dreams draw direct parallels to that political reality as well: The most obvious example being the slow death of George Floyd, of which every second was recorded and played for the public. One 46-year-old female Democrat relayed that “I had a dream that I was being choked to death. I didn’t see by who or what, but it was terrifying.” And Democrat nightmares about home invasions are also potentially fortified by the heartbreaking example of Breonna Taylor’s death –the result of a home invasion.
Dreams of Youth
Taking a break from nightmarish hellscapes for just a moment, we wanted to see what dreams were made of, especially among various generations. The next several portions of this study focus on dreams only (as opposed to nightmares) and compare the content across Generation Z, millennials, Gen X, and baby boomers. Even the dream side of sleep, however, showcased drastic differences across ages.
Born after 1996, the oldest of Gen Z will turn 23 by the end of 2020. Though that makes many members of this generation too young to vote, there may be roughly 24 million of them heading to voting booths in November of 2020. They’re also on track to become the best-educated generation yet. And their dreams are full of hope.
Gen Z was the most likely generation to dream of peace: 22.2% of this generation envisioned something of the kind at night. Fifteen percent also dreamt of BLM protests, which they may see as a vehicle for that sense of dreamworthy peace. In waking moments, Gen Z has been nicknamed “The Action Generation,” with 90% demonstrating support for Black Lives Matter both on and off social media. They’re often leading the charge in worldwide protests and evidently continue the thought process in their sleep.
That said, their youth wasn’t entirely dedicated to activism and leading their older counterparts toward peace. Dreams of peace were nearly doubled by dreams of having sex (38.27%) and travel (41.4%). Doing drugs was also a nighttime vision for 19% of Gen Z respondents. Perhaps this is a symptom of youth moreso than a symptom of the times in which they live. One 19-year-old innocently relayed a dream of hers where “I had a boyfriend and played a prank on him and he got upset … Then he started kissing me on the cheek to make me feel better.” Emotions of “happiness” and “tranquility” were also mentioned repeatedly.
Millennial Midnight Mindsets
Millennials, like Gen Z, are also better-educated on average than their older counterparts in the U.S. That means, however, that this generation has likely made a large financial investment in that education and anticipate a return on the investment. Millennial women are also more likely to participate in the workforce than older generations. In this study, millennials had jobs and money on their minds, especially in their dreams.
Twelve percent of millennials dreamed of becoming rich, followed by 11.8% who dreamed of professional success. Seven percent had dreams of simply being hired, which may be difficult to make a reality today: This generation was disproportionately hit and held down professionally by the coronavirus, in spite of its worldwide impact. No wonder why they’re dreaming of getting an offer.
Colors of blue, black, red, and grey predominated the visual landscape for millennials at night, and even though we were focusing on dreams, emotions of fear and anxiety still surfaced as common descriptors. In addition to their job loss and professional obstacles, this generation has also been branded as one with particularly high levels of anxiety, which evidently translates into their dream worlds as well. One millennial told us their good dream “started [as] absolutely blissful, but got depressing real quick.”
Generation X respondents, born between the mid-’60s and the early ’80s, number around 65 million Americans. This group is currently approaching the standard “middle” of their careers, or what many experts refer to as “peak-earning years.” They’re also, unfortunately, the very first generation that’s on track to be worse off than their parents were when they officially hit retirement age. Many of the dreams they shared reflected these generational traits as well:
- 11.6% dreamed of becoming rich
- 11.2% dreamed of quitting their jobs
- 7.8% dreamed of getting hired
Professionally-inspired dreams, however, paled in comparison to this generation’s nostalgia for the past. Strictly in terms of a numbers game, this generation has more of a past to dream of than their younger counterparts. Forty-one percent dreamed of the past in general, and 24% specifically wanted to reconnect with an ex partner. One Gen X participant described his dream as one where “I felt young again,” while another told us “I was unsure of myself and desperate to impress my ex. I wanted him to see how well I’ve done for myself.” A third mentioned “I was glad to see some of these people again. Mainly good feelings of reconnecting.” The mixed emotions of these dreams were echoed throughout the rest of the generation: Feelings of both fear and happiness were commonly mentioned when describing dreams.
Baby Boomer Brains
Baby boomers were the oldest generation we studied. This group was born between 1946 and 1964 and had experienced much more of Earth than the other respondents we spoke to. This generation experienced extended periods of American prosperity and thus are an economically influential generation. Noticeably absent from their dreams were visions of getting hired (4.7%) and professional success (2.8%), perhaps because they already attained these things in real life. Instead, their dreams more reflected their age and heavily focused on the past (42.5%), with particular emphasis on reconnecting with others who had been deceased (28.3%). Being most at risk for the effects of the coronavirus may also have led them to disproportionately imagine someone finding a cure for COVID-19.
Despite this longing for the past and an end to the pandemic, many expressed the contentment and peace when they indulged their feelings of nostalgia. As one baby boomer expressed, “I was very mellow and at peace with the world. I think I was happy, and I was smiling the entire dream.” Twenty-six percent had blissful dreams of travel (26.4%) or even obtaining super powers (7.6%). Many were also dreaming of new chapters in their life, like bringing home a puppy or a new pet.
There were also, however, predominant feelings of “disbelief” and “fear” over current events in baby boomer dreamscapes. One dreamer shared that they were “angry over the current situation in this country and the apparent collapse of social discourse. I expressed my fear about the future for my grandchildren.” Colors of blue, black, red, and green predominated these dreams.
In the past three months, many respondents had dreamed specifically about COVID-19. Some had nightmares, while others reported more sanguine dreams. At a glance, these dream and nightmares included:
- Contracting COVID-19 (7.2%)
- A loved one contracting COVID-19 (6.5%)
- Finding a cure for COVID-19 (7.9%)
In these dreams, much like in reality, mixed emotions of hope, fear, and confusion run rampant. Estimates of COVID-19’s impact have oscillated drastically as have methods for dealing with them. We thought our hospitals wouldn’t be overrun, we thought the disease would go away, we thought things would go back to normal. This entire whiplash news cycle has apparently seeped into the dreams of many. Respondents mentioned both “anxiety” and “hope” frequently as they described their dreams. And ironically, confusion is itself a symptom of COVID-19.
The virus itself (as seen under a microscope) appears in colors of red, blue, and yellow atop a black backdrop. Many of these colors also relayed themselves into related nightmares: black, blue, and red were the three most common colors mentioned by respondents when they reflected back to their COVID-related dreams. One respondent even shared that her dreams had made her “more fearful of going out and worrying about contracting the coronavirus.”
Just a Dream
It seems it used to be easier to shrug off nightmares as “just a dream,” while today’s dreams seem to directly mirror reality. Especially for those with political leanings, nightmares portray the absolute worst of each party’s fears, carrying them over from daytime realities. While younger generations still dreamed of peace and hope, older generations were more concerned with accumulating wealth or reconnecting with an ex.
It’s important to note that both dreams and nightmares indicate your sleep is not yet deep enough. And while quality sleep is always important, it becomes paramount during a public health crisis. Getting rest is often your first line of defense against illness and your first aid in healing. If you are looking to improve your sleep, head to The Sleep Judge, where our entire staff is dedicated to helping others get better rest. Whether you’re looking for bedding, mattresses, or just helpful information on how to fall asleep, The Sleep Judge is here to help.
Methodology and Limitations
We surveyed 1,020 people about their dreams this year. To qualify for the survey respondents had to indicate they could accurately recall their dreams. Of the 1,020 surveyed, 49.1% identified as female, 50.6% identified as male, and less than 1% identified as nonbinary. The average age of respondents was 37 with a standard deviation of 12 years. An attention-check question was used to identify and disqualify respondents who failed to read questions and answers in their entirety. The main limitation of this study is the reliance on self-reported responses, which are faced with several issues including, but not limited to, attribution, exaggeration, telescoping, and recency bias.
Fair Use Statement
This study is (literally) what dreams are made of. If you’re a dreamer yourself, or know somebody who could benefit from the contents of this study, you are welcome to share the results with them. Just be sure your purposes are noncommercial and that you link back to this page so its contributors can receive proper credit for their work.