Money woes plague Americans' dreams

Falling dreams are a common in many cultures. Dream researcher Kelly Bulkeley says: "We usually associate doing well with rising, so falling is a very accurate, painful metaphor for feelings that people have about the financial circumstances of their waking-life."

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Kai Ryssdal: We did a series of stories this past spring about how the recession and the financial crisis have affected the American Dream. Whether that dream's even a possibility anymore. But it occurred to us that there is one aspect of the American Dream that hasn't gotten much attention. The actual dream part. As in, what kinds of dreams American are having a year-and-a-half into a recession. Y'know at night. When we're asleep. We sent Marketplace's Krissy Clark on a tour of the American subconscious.


KRISSY CLARK: Ask anyone if they've had a dream about the economy lately. And their answer's probably going to sound something like Hugh Dwier's. He's an athletic director from New Jersey, who I recently stopped on the street.

HUGH DWIER: I wouldn't call them dreams, more like nightmares.

The nightmares come in all shapes and sizes. For Carol McCartney, a retired pharmacist from Colorado, they're about...

Carol MCCARTNEY: Homelessness. We were in our car. And we were cold.

And for this school administrator from Ohio, Jane Jasper...

JANE JASPER: I was falling in to a huge hole, and worried about paying bills.

Falling dreams, homeless dreams, lose-your job dreams. They're a common complaint these days according to Kelly Bulkeley. He's a dream researcher at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley California.

Kelly BULKELEY: Each individual's dream becomes kind of a window into how the numbers of the economy and the facts and figures we read in the paper, how they're impacting people at a very personal level. Dreams really come to the fore during times of uncertainty, to help us make sense of the craziness that we're all experiencing.

And sometimes, it's hard to decide which is crazier, the dream, or the reality it's reflecting.

CHARLIE SCHROEDER: Charles Schwab, was sitting in sort of like a sound stage, in between takes on a commercial.

Take this dream, that a sports writer named Charlie Schroeder had recently. About Charles Schwab -- yes, that Charles Schwab, the founder of the investment firm.

SCHROEDER: But he looked nothing like Charles Schwab. He kind of looked a little like, Malcolm Gladwell, Sid Vicious, he had spikey hair, like this shock of hair, and a suit, and a thin black tie. I must have been looking at him sort of quizzically, because he looked at me, and he was like, hey man, you never know with me, I'm kind of crazy, I like to mix things up. I'm Charles Schwab!

I asked our resident dream analyst, Kelly Bulkeley, to pull out his pipe and do his Freudian-dream thing on this one.

BULKELEY: I do not smoke, sorry. And I don't have a beard, I've got a little stubble, so I'll scratch my stubble for you. When people dream of prominent public figures that we don't personally know, it often reflects some qualities that those public figures represent to us.

So given the current economic upheaval, Bulkeley says this dream makes a certain kind of dream-world sense. Charles Schwab, once a pillar of stability and sobriety in the financial world, has suddenly gone crazy.

Lance Kimmel is a corporate attorney who specializes in mergers and acquisitions.

LANCE KIMMEL: Oh gosh, this is embarrassing. I actually have clients and colleagues who listen to Marketplace!

His dream was a variation on the old "unprepared student" classic.

KIMMEL: I kind of thought that it was a history or political science exam, and I could probably wing it. But then in the front of the room is Bernanke.

Yes, that Bernanke. Ben Bernanke. The chairman of the Federal Reserve. And the test was on how to fix the economy.

KIMMEL: I'm having trouble keeping the check book in order right now, let alone the nation's economy and the world's financial markets.

Tell me about it. So is there anything economically useful about the recession dreams people are having these days? That's what I asked behavioral economist Dan Ariely. And he said, yes. As stressful as dreams can be, they can also give us a chance to think differently about how to solve economic problems in our waking lives.

DAN ARIELY: If dreams can help us open the possibility that there are more different inputs and approaches, maybe we can come up with more creative ideas. And maybe even more, maybe we should all recommend to Bernanke to start thinking this way as he goes to sleep.

That is, if Bernanke's actually getting any sleep these days.

I'm Krissy Clark, for Marketplace. Sweet dreams.

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