What Do Your Dreams Look Like?
We asked over 1,200 Americans to describe their dreams. Here’s what they look like.
May 21st, 2021 •
You may think of sleep as quiet downtime, but there’s actually a lot going on during these silent hours. While you’re sleeping, your brain is synthesizing images, ideas, and emotions you experience during your waking hours. More commonly known as: dreaming. Exploring new places, being chased by a bear, meeting mysterious strangers, getting lost in an infinite maze … the world of dreams and nightmares is a wonder to behold.
But do we all experience it differently? What are men dreaming about versus women? Teens vs. adults? We wanted to explore the ways our nocturnal experiences overlap and diverge, and how different themes manifest in unique and interesting ways – so we surveyed over 1,200 Americans about their recurring dreams and the feelings and colors often associated with them.
What are Americans dreaming about?
Certain experiences link all of humanity together. We all eat, we all sleep, and somehow, regardless of our unique life experiences, many of us have the same dreams. Below is an exploration of the most common recurring dreams and nightmares by gender.
Read on to find out what unfolded once their subconscious took over.
The Dreams of Men
While our waking bodies are bound to our current location, dreams offer us the perk of traveling to destinations far and wide. The subconscious of the American man is particularly fond of this dream – 37.9 percent said they explored a new place while fast asleep, like a sprawling city bathed in twinkling light or even a new planet. Respondents described feelings during this dream to be anything from “terrifying” and “pure bliss” to “wonder” and “sadness and anxiety.” Frequent mentions of China and outer space led the visual of male dreams and provides context for the broad range of feelings evoked in participants.
The next most popular experience American men dreamed of was sex, at about 15 percent. Meanwhile, their female peers dreamed of sex almost half as much, represented by 8.5 percent of the population. Why the discrepancy? Some say it boils down to nature versus nurture and the environmental factors that shape the messages men and women receive from the media – aside from that, it might just be simple biological tendencies.
American men also dreamed of acquiring superpowers (8.7 percent) and money (8.4 percent). The most commonly remembered colors in these dreams were rather earthy, such as blue, green, red, gray, black, and brown.
The Dreams of Women
Dreaming about new places was a common theme among men and women. The numbers were close, although women had a slightly higher incidence of travel dreams (at 39.1 percent) – one-way ticket to Japan to admire pagodas and cherry blossoms, anyone? Certain colors were also common among women: 27.1 percent of female respondents primarily saw blues while dreaming, while 12.4 percent saw shades of red.
The second most popular dream among women was about falling in love. The image below features a ship sinking into the clouds as a nod to the dramatized love story from the film “Titanic” referenced by female respondents. Additionally, the number of women who dreamed about falling in love (15.2 percent) was nearly the same as the number of men who dreamed about having sex (15 percent). Meanwhile, only 6.2 percent of men reported dreaming about falling in love.
Research shows “some women can tend to gain their self-esteem from relationships and some men can tend to gain their self-esteem from their performance within the world,” which may explain the reason behind this long-standing divide. Our dreams are often driven by topics and themes that mean the most to us and that are frequently on our mind.
So what do women feel while their dreams of finding true love unfold? Words like “love,” “happiness,” “joy,” and “excitement” were common. “I felt like a certain calmness came over me, and all during the day, I felt a warm feeling,” said one respondent. During dreams like these, the majority of people saw different tones of red (18 percent) and blue (38 percent).
An identical number of women (12.4 percent) dreamed of flying compared with their male counterparts, while the theme of money came up slightly less (6.2 percent for women compared to 8.4 percent for men).
The Nightmares of Men
Certain dreams can leave you feeling warm and fuzzy, but nightmares round out a stressful and terrifying dichotomy. Among American men, three standout nightmares manifested over and over again.
Falling was the most common one, with 19.4 percent of respondents having experienced this scenario at some point in their dream lives. The sentiments expressed about these nightmares were far more consistent than those used to describe regular dreams: Respondents used terms like “stomach-turning,” “terror,” “helplessness,” and “fear” to describe their memories of taking a deep plunge, uncertain of the terrors and ghouls awaiting below.
Nightmares about being chased were not far behind: 17.1 percent of American men experienced this situation while asleep as if dropping to your death from an airplane isn’t frightening enough, one could only imagine the terror evoked from a giant reptile hunting you.The third most common nightmare was about being attacked (coming in at 13.7 percent). Interestingly, this theme only manifested for 9.7 percent of women. So what’s the big difference between chases and attacks, and why are the two represented so differently between the two sexes?
One explanation may be rooted in the way anxieties manifest: According to our data, large amounts of stress drove 49 percent of women’s dreams and 36.9 percent of men’s. The very definition of anxiety is worry about “an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” The uncertainty of being chased is what makes this nightmare one of the most universally terrifying: What if the person pursuing me actually catches me? What would they do to me? Meanwhile, the actual notion of being attacked is not shrouded in anxiety at all. It is a real event unfolding before you.
The Nightmares of Women
Among American women, being chased actually took the cake for the most commonly recurring nightmare, with 19.6 percent of respondents being afflicted by this type of dream. The results show that one thing is likely: Being pursued by a wolf pack in a dark labyrinth could make anyone scream in their sleep.
Falling and losing teeth were tied for the second most common nightmare among American women (at 9.9 percent). The third and fourth most common night terrors were about being attacked (9.7 percent) and about the ending of a relationship with a significant other (8.3 percent). Men experienced the latter dream much more infrequently, at 3.1 percent of the population. Almost half of the respondents associated the color black with this dream (44 percent), while muted, dark colors like gray (11.3 percent) and brown (10.3 percent) were also prevalent, casting an ominous shadow over these frightening mental landscapes.
Dreams Across Generations
Across the three generations surveyed, Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964) were the most active dreamers of the bunch: 63.9 percent reported having frequent dreams, and 28.6 percent only dreamed sometimes. Gen Xers (born 1965 to 1980) were composed of 57.2 percent of frequent dreamers, and 40.3 percent sometimes dreamed, while Millennials (born 1981 to 1997) were similarly split: 56.5 percent and 37.9 percent, respectively.
The Dreams of Baby Boomers
Baby Boomers’ dreamscapes were dominated by scenes of revelry and exploration: new and exciting places, memorable and fun experiences, and a veritable zest for life.
While dreams about exploring a new place topped the charts in all three generational categories, Baby Boomers still experienced this theme at the highest rate: 44.8 percent of people in this category dreamed about going somewhere new. Baby Boomers surveyed were more likely to reminisce about youthful memories as well as tropical destinations.
Respondents experienced this dream in a fairly positive and cohesive way, with recollections including “contentment,” “curiosity,” “awe,” “love,” and “happiness.” Some respondents did report feelings of fear, such as one that was faced with a tidal wave. The highest reported colors from these dreams mirrored those found in nature: blue (36.7 percent), gray (13.3 percent), and green (10 percent).
Flying was the second most popular dream theme, with 17.9 percent of Baby Boomers experiencing it. Respondents generally described these dreams as euphoric and peaceful, while others experienced a combination of excitement and fear at once. At a much less frequent rate, Baby Boomers dreamed of falling in love (7 percent), money and test taking (both 6 percent), and sex and food (4.5 percent apiece).
The Dreams of Gen Xers
When thinking of Gen Xers, some may picture cassette tapes, zany patterns, and troll dolls, but what else links this generation together? Their dreams, of course, defined by exploration, adventure, wonder, and floating above the clouds.
Images of exploring a new place dominated the sleep cycles of Gen Xers, with 42.1 percent of respondents experiencing this dream at least once. From graveyards to encounters with seductive Medusa-inspired creatures, “the middle child” of the generations reported exploring the darkest locations of the bunch.
The first runner-up was dreams of flying, at a rate that was identical to Baby Boomers: 17.9 percent. One survey member described their experience with a flying dream as “blissful,” “hopeful,” and “joyful”: “I was flying all over the world and could feel the wind on my skin and could see the colors so vividly. Then I dove into the ocean and could glide through the water so fast, and I could feel the warm salty water … It was the most wonderful feeling.” The colors most widely represented in these memories were blue, green, red, and multicolor.
Of the three surveyed generations, Gen Xers reported the highest volume of low-quality sleep: 16.9 percent of respondents categorized the quality of their rest as poor, compared to 14.6 percent of Millennials and 10.9 percent of Baby Boomers. There are many interesting observations about the relationship between sleep quality and dreams and the impact that certain factors have on our ability to recall dreams effectively.
The Dreams of Millennials
Millennials can be many things, depending on whom you ask: entitled, tech-savvy, entrepreneurial, lazy, and resourceful. They’re also a surprisingly romantic bunch, with themes of love and adventure dominating their dream worlds, as detailed in the illustration below. Only one thing is for certain, though, and that is the fact that this generation is seriously stressed out. In fact, compared to Baby Boomers and Gen Xers, the meaning behind their dreams says it all. While 47.7 percent of Millennials attributed the meaning behind their dreams to stress, only 42.9 percent of Gen Xers and 24.5 percent of Baby Boomers said the same.
Once again, exploring a new place was the most commonly experienced dream among this age bracket (36.1 percent). However, unlike their older counterparts, flying did not occupy the second highest slot (it trailed behind in fourth place at 9.2 percent). Instead, dreams about sex were next in line, with 14 percent of Millennials having experienced one. It seems the incidence of these dreams decreases with age: A comparative 10 percent of Gen Xers and 4.5 percent of Baby Boomers remembered this theme coming up in their dreams.
Following a similar pattern is the theme of falling in love – the third most reported dream topic among this group at 12.1 percent. Gen Xers (9.5 percent) and Baby Boomers (7.5 percent) reported decreasing incidences of this topic. We can employ a similar logic here: It is possible Millennials, given their age, are at a stage that lends a larger focus to romantic relationship-building: American teens begin dating around the age of thirteen, and by the age of sixteen, over 90 percent have been on at least one date.
The Nightmares of Baby Boomers
Baby Boomers experienced a nightmare about being chased at a rate of 18.2 percent, with dreams about falling not far behind at 16.2 percent. Of those who had dreams about being chased, 55.6 percent reported associating the color black with that memory. Respondents recalled being chased by unknown individuals, zombies, and monsters, often accompanied by a feeling of not being able to escape regardless of effort: “It seems to be about running away from something or somebody bad but not being able to speak to ask for help.” Another survey participant said, “King Kong or some other very large beast is chasing me, hunting me.”
Nightmares about feeling lost took the third spot among Baby Boomers (at 14.1 percent). This theme manifested in a host of different ways: People reported memories of being lost in the mountains, wandering an abandoned building or infinite hallway, getting stuck in a foreign city, and feelings of discontent with those around them.
The Nightmares of Gen Xers
While being chased was the most frequent nightmare among Gen Xers, it was experienced at the lowest rate among the three surveyed generations at 15.1 percent. Trailing not far behind: 10.9 percent of this demographic dreamed of falling, while 10.5 percent had memories of being attacked. Fear of falling is a common nightmare, but falling from a ride with a one-eyed roller-coaster monster trailing you takes these terrors to the next level.
Across the board, the color black was the most frequently associated with these nocturnal terrors, while other classically “eerie” tones like gray, brown, and red made appearances as well.
The nightmares our survey participants described were, indeed, terrifying. On the topic of being attacked, one respondent recalled, “Seeing my children and spouse get killed. That would be the worst thing ever to happen in my life.” This individual associated the color red with the memory. Individuals who recalled nightmares about falling emphasized being dropped from breathtaking heights such as a World War II Spitfire warplane or a high-speed roller coaster.
Gen Xers’ nightmares also had notable instances of showing up to something late (9.2 percent) and feeling lost (8.4 percent).
The Nightmares of Millennials
Even Millennials aren’t safe from the dreaded nightmare of being chased, with 19.9 percent of this demographic having experienced one before. Social issues seem to haunt Millennials the most, with frequent mentions of mass protests and police brutality cited by respondents.
Following the theme of love and relationships dominating Millennial minds compared to older generations, this group experienced the highest frequency of nightmares about a significant other leaving them (at 6.4 percent) – however, the margin was not as significant when analyzing dreams about love and sex. A slightly lower 5.5 percent of Gen Xers reported having this nightmare, while it affected 5.1 percent of Baby Boomers.
Oddly enough, Millennials experienced nightmares about death more than their older peers: 6.9 percent of this age group reported such dreams, while they showed up 5.9 percent of the time for Gen Xers. Finally, just 1 percent of the oldest age group reported having a nightmare about death! Maybe this is how the oft-referenced Millennial existential crisis is taking its toll, not to mention the 44 percent of college students who’ve reported symptoms of depression.
In Your Dreams…
Just like in our waking lives, individuals across genders and generations are similar in so many ways – but very different at the same time. One thing we can all agree on is that one of the few things better than a good dream is a great night’s sleep. No matter what kind of adventures await you tonight, make sure you’ve chosen the right vehicle to get there. Trust Mattress Advisor when it’s time to evaluate some of the best mattresses and bedding accessories on the market. One-third of your life is spent sleeping, so make it count.
We collected responses from 1,256 Americans on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. 57% of our participants identified as female and 43% were male. Participants ranged in age from 18 to 81, with a mean of 57.
To create the visuals for this projects, we asked respondents to select their most recurring dreams and describe the feelings and colors associated with those dreams. We then asked respondents to describe these recurring dreams in as much detail as possible. Once all the responses were collected, we ran a text analysis to determine the most frequent descriptive phrases per dream type. The colors, descriptions, and feelings with the most occurrences were used to create each dream collage in Adobe Photoshop.
The data we are presenting rely on self-reporting. There are many issues with self-reported data. These issues include but are not limited to: selective memory, telescoping, attribution, and exaggeration.
Fair Use Statement
Interested in sharing the dream world with your audience? Expand their knowledge of dreams by sharing our findings. Before dozing off, be sure to link back to the original study and credit MattressAdvisor.com for the visuals and data.