Why we need to change our sleep culture

By jamming out to everything from Fifth Harmony to Rihanna’s “Work” and Wiz Khalifa’s “No Sleep,” I have been trying as hard as I can these last couple of days to motivate myself into studying for my finals. While procrastinating, I began to think about sleeping, but more so, our current sleep culture and the drowsy guys beside me in Hornbake Library.

Specifically, why do we have a society that seems to justify and equate sleep deprivation with hard work and success? It’s shocking to see how we have accepted sleep deprivation as an almost quintessential part of our American identity. How did we so readily embrace this deadly epidemic that increases the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and mental illness?

Some argue that our sleep loss is wrought by our stressful lives, but didn’t our World War II ancestors also lead stressful lives? Surprisingly enough, the last couple of decades in American history have shown steep declines in the average amount of sleep Americans get. Today, according to the CDC, more than a third of American adults don’t sleep enough on a regular basis (this author included), with about 35 percent of the population sleeping less than the recommended 7 hours a night. Historic and recent Gallup Polls show that Americans sleep much less now than they did decades ago. Americans slept an average of 7.9 hours per night in 1942 compared to just 6.8 hours per night in 2013, the poll showed.

So what explains this steep decline? It’s possible that our country’s diminishing socioeconomic opportunities have forced our culture to shift toward longer, sleepless nights. Burgeoning income inequalities and rising wage gaps between our country’s richest and poorest Americans exacerbate the necessity of working longer hours, and further precipitate our sleep sacrifice. Considering how, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the wages for the top 1 percent of Americans from 1979 to 2011 increased to four to five times larger than the incomes of the middle 60 percent and the bottom fifth, is it any wonder that so many of us are sleeping less? This erosion of upward mobility for lower income Americans forces us all to work harder for the same American Dream that may have been more easily accessible to our ancestors.

Another explanation for our country’s sleep deprivation lies within the pitfalls of our modern Information Age. Today, our endless devices connect us to one another via the Internet and allow us to access an infinite quantity of information at the cost of our most valuable nonrenewable currency: time. Our technologies provide a means to escape our uncomfortable realities, and to make up for our lost screen time, we replace it with our precious sleep time.

The next time you think about pulling an all-nighter, ask yourself if it is really worth it. It probably is in the short term, but it poses a health risk in the long term. The truth is that we all need more sleep, and we also need to change our cultural perception of the relationship between sleeping and productivity. Sleeping in doesn’t necessarily have to be equated with laziness; it’s a natural part of who we are, and who we will be.

Max An is a junior physiology and neurobiology major. He can be reached at maxandbk@gmail.com.

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