Only humans willingly delay sleep

If you’re here then I suspect you or someone close to you may be struggling to sleep. You are not alone. Sleep deprivation is reaching epidemic levels and there are lots of reasons for that. But for a minute lets just consider whether there is an underlying theme?

Humans are the only mammals who willingly delay sleep. Why would we do that?

Perhaps we have become so busy, so driven, that we are overlooking the importance of sleep. Or perhaps we just don’t know how important it is. More than 20 large scale epidemiological studies all report the same clear relationship: the shorter your sleep, the shorter your life.

To take just one example, adults aged 45 years or older who sleep less than six hours a night are 200% more likely to have a heart attack or stroke in their lifetime, as compared with those sleeping seven or eight hours a night.

So why would we deprive ourselves of something that is so vital? The most intelligent mammal – us – willingly delays sleep. If it wasn’t so serious it would be comical. It’s a bit like a thirsty man standing by a cool spring and turning down the opportunity for a long satisfying drink.

Days blur into nights
We live in an online, electricity driven world and this blurs our natural day/night balance. We can catch up on work any time of night or day. We can read or watch TV all night. We can (when not in lockdown) party all night. Switching off is harder than ever before.

Social pressure?
Add a bit of social pressure and we can perhaps understand why we are so sleep deprived. There has been lots of commentary over the years about high-powered successful people who allegedly don’t need much sleep. If you search online for celebrities or business leaders who don’t sleep much you can pick up a wide range of quotes including “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”.

Have we created a culture where we believe that to be successful we must work so hard we deprive ourselves of sleep? Or is it a badge of honour to not have enough time to sleep? Some people have said to me that they feel guilting for sleeping long hours?

Is the story changing?
But interestingly when you really begin to scratch the surface of the sleep story you’ll find that many very successful people do prioritise sleep. There are always reports of the few who sleep four or five hours a night and I think sometimes this has grabbed the headlines. But for the most part successful people take their sleep seriously. For example Harvard Business Review assessed 35,000 business executives and found that the more senior a person’s role is the more sleep they get.

Maybe the story is changing and we are bringing ourselves back on track. The explosion in mindfulness, meditation and use of sleep apps and aids suggests that large number of people are keen to get back on track.

It’s not easy and life can and does get in the way of sleep. Many parents don’t get much sleep particularly when their family is young. Students burn the candle at both ends. Some people work two or even three jobs. Many work nights. Shops (when they are open) are often open late. Clubs and bars (when they are open) always open late.

But perhaps we need to reprioritise; to reconnect with and cherish sleep. Just acknowledging how important it is could be the change you need. Let’s all fall back in love with sleep and find ways to get those vital 8 to 9 hours.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Ernest Hemingway.

“I love sleep. My life has a tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know”