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Our Dreams Are Surprisingly Friendly

What we can learn from exploring the positive social interactions in our dreams.

Key points

  • It is more common to dream about friendship than it is to dream about sex or aggression.
  • Women tend to have more dreams of friendliness than men do.
  • Nightmares and work dreams tend to have few references to friendliness.
Source: Meranna/Shutterstock

While dreams with explicitly sexual or violent content tend to grab our attention, a surprisingly high proportion of dreams involve content you could describe as "friendly." According to an analysis from the Sleep and Dream Database, 47 percent of women’s dreams have at least one reference to a friendly social interaction (the most used words: friend, friends, boyfriend, help, party, love), as do 36 percent of men’s dreams (most used words: friend, friends, girlfriend, help, love, party). For both genders, those figures are greater than the combined percentages for sexual interactions (4 percent for women, 6 percent for men) and physically aggressive interactions (15 percent for women, 22 percent for men). If we add in non-physical aggression (such as mean comments or thoughts), the relative proportions change, but the key fact remains: Friendly social interactions are a prominent feature of the content of most people’s dreams. If dreams offer a “royal road to a knowledge of the unconscious mind,” as Sigmund Freud famously claimed in The Interpretation of Dreams (2nd ed.), giving evidence of our deepest sexual and aggressive instincts, then dreams also provide evidence of our friendly, prosocial instincts.

Although much less studied than sex and aggression, researchers have identified several patterns in friendliness dreams. As illustrated above, women tend to have more friendliness in their dreams than do men. Whether this is nature (women are innately more friendly than men) or nurture (women are socialized to be more friendly than men) is unclear; perhaps aspects of both factors are involved. According to G. William Domhoff in Finding Meaning in Dreams (1996), almost all friendliness in dreams involves the dreamer, there is very little “witnessed” friendliness. Men have more aggression in relation to male characters in their dreams, and more friendliness towards female characters. Women tend to have more friendly interactions in their dreams with men they know, and more aggressive interactions with men they do not know. These are general findings, of course, which may or may not apply to specific individuals. But these patterns of friendly content in dreaming do seem consistent with common aspects of people’s social interactions in waking life.

Similar aspects of friendly dreaming occur with several individuals whose long-term dream journals are collected in the Sleep and Dream Database (SDDb). For example, Jordan, an artist in her forties, has friendly interactions in 43 percent of her dreams; for Jasmine, a musician in her twenties, it’s 42 percent; for Mike, a veteran who served in the Vietnam War as a medic, it’s 40 percent. My own collection of dreams from 2012 had a friendly interactions figure of 42 percent; in my dreams from 2020, it was 44 percent.

Not everyone has this much friendliness in their dreams. The “Natural Scientist,” whose 1939 journal of 234 dreams was analyzed by J. Allan Hobson in The Dreaming Brain (1988), had friendly interactions in 24 percent of his dreams. This lower rate may reflect the limited social contacts in his waking life (he was a bachelor and a laboratory scientist who studied insects). His figures may also reflect the continuity principle of dreaming, which is that the frequency of an element in dreaming reflects the emotional importance of that element in the individual’s waking life. The Natural Scientist may not have dreamed a lot about friendliness, but he did dream about insects more often than anyone else in the SDDb, which was certainly continuous with his waking life interests.

Some variations in the friendliness of dreaming can be observed over time. During a time in her twenties when “Beverly” belonged to a secretive religious cult, she experienced friendliness in 30 percent of her dreams. After leaving the cult and regaining control of her life, the friendliness in her dreams grew to 34 percent in her thirties, 36 percent in her forties, and 40 percent in her fifties. As she has described in her own writings on the experience, it took a long time for Beverly to liberate herself from the mental shackles of the cult. Her dreams seem to reflect that slow and arduous but ultimately positive journey.

Not surprisingly, nightmares tend to have low frequencies of friendliness. In a survey asking several thousand people to describe their “worst nightmare,” only 8 percent of the reports of 15 or more words had a reference to friendliness. Similarly, in surveys asking people about their dreams of work, just 8 percent have a reference to friendliness. In contrast, surveys asking about visitation dreams (dreams in which someone who is dead appears as if alive) have friendliness in 23 percent of the reports, and surveys asking about “the most memorable dream you’ve ever had in your life” yield references to friendliness in 29 percent of the reports. It seems the more spiritually charged a dream becomes, the more likely it will be to have a friendly social interaction.

Although much more will emerge from future studies, the research so far on friendliness in dreaming has several practical implications.

First, you can learn about the depth and quality of your relationships with your friends by considering who does and doesn’t appear in your dreams, and how you interact with them when they do appear. For example, you can observe the patterns of who in your dreams initiates a friendly act, versus who receives the friendly act. Are you always on the giving end or the receiving end? Do some of your friends only appear in one or the other role?

Second, you can look closely at dreams in which feelings of friendliness become mixed with feelings of romantic desire. In some dreams, it’s hard to tell if an interaction is friendly or romantic—which may be exactly the point, in terms of bringing to conscious awareness your ambiguous feelings towards the person.

And third, if you notice that the frequency of friendliness in your dreams diminishes drastically, that might be a sign of difficulties with your social life. Everyone has their own baseline of “normal” friendliness in their dreams, so it’s worth paying enough attention to your dreams over time and becoming familiar with your own regular patterns, to enable you to recognize worrisome changes if they occur.