Daily life has its satisfactions. The perfect reply to a friend's text message. The first after-work drink. The sound of another government U-turn. But do any really compare to the joy of going to sleep? That moment when the clutter of 21st-century existence disappears into the non-judgmental embrace of a mattress?
Somehow we have pushed this pleasure to the back of the queue. A third of American adults report sleeping less than the recommended seven hours. Many of us feel under-rested.
For some, the problem is modern life: emails, to-do lists and screens. Reed Hastings, Netflix's co-founder, said in 2017: "We're competing with sleep, on the margin." The rise of coffee-drinking probably hasn't helped either.
For other people, it's the demands of work or family. Last month an exhausted doctor in Massachusetts was fined $5000 for taking a break to eat in his car and sleeping through an operation. Joe Biden was seen "resting his eyes" at the Glasgow climate summit. When I lived in Colombia, I'd often see workers sleeping in parks during the day, compensating for early starts and long commutes.
Then there are those who can't sleep when they try. A politician dozing publicly is bad, but the alternative can be worse. In 1895 the Earl of Rosebery resigned after barely a year as British prime minister, unable to overcome his insomnia. Up to one in 10 adults fulfil the criteria for insomnia.
Sleeping as sport
The mix of experiences has led us to take dropping off more scientifically. A century ago, we weren't aware that the brain's electrical activity changes during sleep. Now there's evidence that a lack of sleep is associated with higher risk of depression, cancer, Alzheimer's and obesity. Research published in the European Heart Journal this week reports that heart disease was lower among people who went to sleep between 10pm and 11pm, no matter how long they slept.
Such research is all well and good. But after the rise of step counters and microdosing, is sleep the next part of human experience that will become increasingly tracked, counted and compared? We sigh at LinkedIn users who claim to wake up at 5am and learn Mandarin while meditating. But the reverse, where people overcommit to sleeping well, can be just as off-putting.
"I have a non-negotiable eight-hour sleep opportunity window," Matthew Walker, a sleep researcher, told the FT in 2019. Try explaining that to your children. Making one's sleep inflexible strikes me as rather coldly individualistic (and not just because I am writing this column at 11.18pm).
Other people's experiments with dividing their sleep into two or more daily chunks — known as biphasic or polyphasic sleep — are reminiscent of fad dieting. Whenever scientists set upon a health problem, such as sugar, the conversation seems to turn away from those who really need interventions to those who see their bodies as temples.
The risk is that we overcomplicate the problem. Do we get less sleep than our ancestors? The evidence is not actually clear. Britain's first coronavirus lockdown was reported to have led to a rise in sleep problems, especially among mothers lumped with more childcare. Yet the decline of commuting could now allow many people more sleep than they had before the pandemic.
The rise of 'orthosomnia'
Stressing ourselves out about a lack of sleep can aggravate the problem. In his book Overcoming Insomnia and Sleep Problems, Oxford professor Colin Espie writes about "orthosomnia", where people are so focused with sleeping well that they become too anxious to do so. The marketing of sleeping aids adds to this.
Espie says we each have a sleep pattern that, like a shoe size, we figure out through trial and error. The research on bedtimes between 10pm and 11pm will cheer those who leave parties early and forgo late-night football highlights, but it establishes no causal link.
Genetically, some humans are larks and some are owls; the larks may just have better cardiovascular health. For an owl to try to fight their natural schedule, and sleep earlier, wouldn't necessarily help.
Basic sleeping advice is notably consistent, including: keep a regular pattern, cut back on alcohol and caffeine and strip away all bedroom distractions except your partner. One option for the seriously afflicted is cognitive behavioural therapy. Underlying anxieties are examined and sleep restriction therapy, where sleep is limited then built back up, may come into use.
Instead of just loading sleep advice on individuals, we could integrate aspects of it into public health. Employers could be sensitive to the different needs of their workers. Schools could start later to coincide with children's body rhythms. One day luxury hotels might even realise a night's sleep does not require eight walrus-sized pillows.
Once the macho urged us to sleep when we were dead. Now the enlightened tell us to sleep or we'll be dead. Taking our biology seriously suggests that Netflix should not try to compete with sleep, and the city that never sleeps is not as cool as it sounds.
But nowadays sleep is becoming something that people try to excel at. About that I'm unconvinced. A good night's sleep is a profound pleasure. As far as possible, it should also remain a simple one.
Written by: Henry Mance
© Financial Times