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Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired …
These, the opening lines of Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 27,” accurately describe how I start out many a night. Unfortunately, my hope for rest all too often follows the bard’s next line: “But then begins a journey in my head.” The paean to sleep turns into a lament as I toss and turn.
I am not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Most days or every day” in 2020, nearly 15 percent of American adults had trouble falling asleep in the previous month. The result is that Americans report feeling sleepy an average of three days a week, either because they don’t sleep well enough or because they simply don’t get enough sleep.
Some have trouble sleeping because they, like me, experience the journey in their head. Others could sleep fine, but don’t; one of humans’ more remarkable characteristics is that we are the only animals who deny ourselves sleep when we need it. Some of these people even exhibit a pattern of behavior known as “revenge bedtime procrastination”—they won’t go to bed when they should, because they’re in rebellion against the inner adult who’s telling them to put the next day’s benefits ahead of short-term gratification.
So you’re a little sleepy—no big deal, right? Wrong. Decades of research suggest that sleep deprivation might be a very big deal for your health, and even for your happiness. Adjusting this aspect of your life could be one of the best things you do all year.
Shakespeare knew a thing or two about the benefits of good slumber. He wrote of it elsewhere:
Sleep that knits up the ravell’d sleave of care,
The death of each day’s life, sore labour’s bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course,
Chief nourisher in life’s feast.
Until the late 1990s, people didn’t seem to worry too much about the health risks of not getting enough sleep. That started to change with a 1999 article in the medical journal The Lancet, which showed that “sleep debt” can have significant deleterious effects on health. The authors demonstrated that glucose tolerance fell and stress hormones rose in people deprived of rest, with implications for weight gain and anxiety, among other things. Later research showed sleep’s importance in fighting infection, repairing connections among nerve cells, and cleaning up dead tissue.
And then there’s happiness. Everyone knows what it feels like to run on inadequate sleep—after an all-nighter, you can be foggy, inattentive, and grouchy. For a paper published in the journal Health Psychology in 2020, researchers followed the sleep pattern of nearly 2,000 adults. They found that after nights with shorter-than-average sleep duration, the participants experienced a less positive mood when they encountered quite ordinary stress factors, and smaller increases in positive mood from pleasant events. When you are sleep-deprived, people irritate you more and things feel less fun.
More seriously, sleep loss can trigger clinical depression and anxiety. In 2014, Australian scholars studying young women found that a year of frequent sleep difficulties predicted the onset of depression and anxiety in later years. (A paradoxical effect has been observed in people already suffering from depression, in whom scientists have seen that sleep deprivation can temporarily mitigate symptoms: In several experiments, most people with severe depression who stayed up all night got some relief; but this lasted only until they finally did go to sleep—an intriguing phenomenon but not a long-term treatment strategy.)
Some researchers have identified chronic sleep deprivation as a diagnosable malady—insufficient sleep syndrome (ISS)—and see it as a type of disease. Given the anecdotal evidence for how widespread the syndrome is, it might even be classed as an epidemic. Although no study has yet established a causal connection, it seems reasonable to ponder whether the long-term declines in American happiness and increases in polarization may in some way be connected to the malady’s prevalence. (Perhaps what our dysfunctional Congress needs, like my six-month-old grandson when he gets grumpy, is a good nap.)
Whether you are a sleep-deprived workaholic, a revenge bedtime procrastinator, or just a good old-fashioned insomniac (as I am), attending to sleep is a crucial strategy for health and happiness. Basic sleep hygiene is the first order of business, and advice in this area is easy enough to find. It mostly comes down to five practices:
1. Darken your environment before bed, and sleep in complete darkness.
2. Cut out screen use, and especially social media, in the hours before sleeping.
3. Just go to bed! So that you get more hours in the sack.
4. Eat less junk food, particularly late in the day.
5. Get more exercise (though not right before bedtime, when it can set you buzzing).
The second step is to work to attain greater peace in life. Perhaps this means looking for the sources of anxiety and stress that you could try to cut out. Maybe—if you are a naturally anxious person—you should consider cognitive behavioral therapy, which has been shown to be very effective in improving sleep.
Third, find your own sleep rhythm—and don’t worry if it seems weird. What if I told you about someone who sleeps 6.5 hours a night, does not sleep deeply, is awake around midnight for a couple of hours, and drops off during the day? You would probably say that person has a serious sleep disorder. But I just described the typical sleep pattern of a sample of the Malagasy people of Madagascar, who live a centuries-old traditional agricultural life without electricity or artificial light. What the internet calls a disordered sleep pattern might simply be your natural sleep pattern.
Related to this, your natural sleep pattern will change over your lifetime. You might be trying to sleep the way you did when you were 20 years younger. One of the reasons older adults get less sleep than younger adults is that they may need less: One study in which participants were allowed unlimited sleep time found that older adults naturally slept, on average, 1.5 hours less a day than their younger counterparts. If you are alert when it matters during the day and function well, sleep in the way that feels right for you. Unless doing so interferes with your life, go ahead and take a daytime nap. It’s fine.
Shakespeare’s sonnet about sleep raises one other issue, which is that the stress robbing us of sleep might, ironically, be stress about sleep itself. The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald once noted that “the worst thing in the world is to try to sleep and not to.” I have spent many nights cursing my wakefulness—“my drooping eyelids open wide,” as Shakespeare put it. I can’t sleep because I can’t sleep. This is a self-licking ice-cream cone of misery.
I have adopted a new approach to these occasions: I get up and go about my life. I read, or think, or exercise. Sometimes fresh ideas and inspiration come, almost unbidden, in a way that rarely occurs in daylight hours. I might even write a column for The Atlantic on, say, happiness and sleep. And I have come to realize an odd thing: I love this moment at 2:30 a.m., when the world is silent and dark. I’m happy not to miss it.