Thoughts That Hurt to Think #090 – Americans Are Sleep Deprived!

I don’t know when it became popular to brag about how little sleep you were getting, but it must have been before my time. All my life, I have heard people complain that they were only getting three or four or five hours of sleep each night; yet in most cases, the complaining had a touch of bragging to it. The first thought you might have when you hear that sort of thing is that the person doing the complaining/bragging is getting way more done than everyone else; but often, that’s just not the case.

When I was a kid, I had a lot of trouble getting to sleep when I was supposed to. I thought I had insomnia, or a screwed up internal clock; until I learned years later that this is not uncommon among teenagers. Sending them off to school in the wee morning hours is teaching kids more about living a sleep-deprived life than it is imparting any real valuable knowledge. It’s no wonder so many Americans grow up to be adults who don’t get enough sleep, either; we’re training them for that from the very beginning.

An extremely small percentage of people can function normally on less than seven hours of sleep per night; the rest of us become literally impaired when we get any less than that, to the point we would be if we had a beer or two. That may not seem like much, until you consider that you can go to jail for having two beers and then driving; and when we factor in the cumulative effects of not getting enough sleep night after night, or only sleeping a couple hours in one night, we have to realize there are an awful lot of metaphorical drunks on the road in our country.

Before you chime in and say you must be one of those people who have that rare condition or DNA that makes you able to function optimally on four hours of sleep a night, please keep in mind that this is very rare. I would repeat the word ‘very’ a bunch of times to drive the point home, but that just isn’t my style; instead I’ll say you’ve almost certainly never met one of these people, they’re so uncommon; and you most likely aren’t one of them, either. You may be one in a million, in your own way; but it is highly unlikely that it’s in this way.

Most of the people who claim they can go on very little sleep are suffering the same delusion those drunk drivers we compared them to earlier are. That’s the nature of impairment, after all: you don’t know you’re impaired. Much like the habitual drunk, the person getting very little sleep night after night starts to associate the confinement of that impairment with everyday reality. You can’t tell you’re operating at less than a hundred percent if you can’t remember what a hundred percent feels like, and you can’t compare how much you got done today with how much you got done yesterday if you were similarly sleep-deprived then.

None of this is meant to knock people with newborns, or insomnia, or busy lives. I’m the first person to admit I don’t get enough sleep sometimes, and that the biggest reason I know so much about sleeplessness is because I lived with it for so long. Nowadays, my work sometimes requires me to pull night shifts; all that old knowledge comes back when I do, and I make it a point to catch up on my sleep the best I can the following day. When I don’t, I start to experience all kinds of difficulties: I can’t think as clearly as I’m accustomed to thinking, my internal engine revs a little slower even when I try to stomp on it, and my generally optimistic attitude starts to lean toward my cynical old self.

I recognize those signs, now that I am accustomed to living without them; and I for one am keenly aware that I’m impaired when I don’t get enough sleep. Pushing the limits of my mind is part of my regular routine; when those limits change, I can’t help but notice. Even physical exercise gets harder; keeping a rhythm doesn’t come as naturally, and I just can’t do as many reps as I can when I’m well rested. On top of all that, I don’t feel like exerting my body or mind; I just want to close my eyes, and not open them until I’m feeling like myself again.

If you feel that, you fight the urge and carry on; I get that, and it’s what I do. As soon as I can catch up on sleep, though…I do that, too. I learned a long time ago that me with a good night’s sleep beats me without one hands down. I can’t afford to stack up too many days like that, because I’m moving slower and making more mistakes when I do. In fact, I used to make a certain comparison when I had trouble getting to sleep at night: it seems like I give up a minute of productivity for every minute of sleep I eschew. Nature keeps her own clock, and I for one could never beat it.

When I heard that a lack of sleep was a common precursor for obesity, it was one of those things I had already figured out through my own thought experiments and life experience. My sleepiest days have always been the ones where I make the worst food choices; even when I eat well, my body seems to have more trouble processing the fuel than on a normal day. On top of that, I used to try to replace sleep with food. I might not consider sugary drinks real food, but they definitely contribute to this situation on both ends. They keep us up at night, and cause us to pack on the pounds; especially when we don’t get enough sleep.

Maybe the modern lifestyle just isn’t conducive to sleeping well, or what we substitute for food is messing with our ability to sleep. Perhaps drugs are the culprit, since so many people take something or other every day; and it could be that lighted city streets have messed with our collective biological clock. Probably it’s a combination of all these things, in equal or unequal parts; but it doesn’t really matter as much as the reality of the situation does.

Americans have trouble getting enough sleep, and about as much trouble staying slim and healthy. It only makes sense, when you think about it: sleep is the foundation of our body’s renewal process, and the other aspects of it only function properly when that foundation is there to support them. I still let people know when I’ve been working since midnight, like I sometimes do; and maybe there is a touch of bragging in it when I do. Mostly, though, it’s to let them know I’m not operating at one hundred percent. When my vocabulary doesn’t meet their usual expectations, or words fail me entirely, I want everyone to understand why. And they usually do.

After all, our society trains us to prioritize many things over getting a good night’s sleep. If there’s one thing pretty much every American understands, at least on some level, it’s that we are collectively just not getting enough sleep. We can only do something about it one person at a time, but the first step to solving this problem is admitting we have one. We can be better husbands and wives, workers and parents, if we just make sure we get enough sack time.

Simple, right?

But not easy.

I know, I’m in this sleek modern boat right beside you.

Maybe we can all agree to just keep doing our best, like we probably already have been all along.

Thanks for reading!

All the best,

J.K. Norry
The Secret Society of Deeper Meaning
Twitter: @JayNorry

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