Good Sleep: Not Optional for Happiness and High Performance

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As a reader of this blog, can I assume that you want to increase your levels of happiness and overall life performance?

If so, ‘good' sleep is not optional. 

Do you think you get ‘good' sleep?

According to a poll by the National Sleep Foundation, less than 37% of Americans routinely get high-quality sleep.1 I believe that the true number is lower; that it is so commonplace to have poor sleep, that many Americans think their sleep is restful even while it could be better.

I believe this for three reasons:

  1. The unaddressed emotional stress of modern day life disrupts sleep.
  2. The widespread consumption of caffeine products like coffee and soda masks symptoms of poor sleep.
  3. Nearly 100% of Americans are  at least partially melatonin-deprived.

I was going to include the fact that most Americans sleep less than the ‘recommended' 7-8 hours as #4, but I trust the U.S. Bureauย of Labor Statistics, which says that employed people in the age range of 24-54 spend an average of 7.6 hours sleeping each night.2 Yes, these people are likely under-sleeping on weekdays and over-sleeping on weekends, but either way, most people get poor sleep.

On to the details:

The unaddressed emotional stress of modern day life disrupts sleep.

The sleep scientist that wrote Sound Sleep, Sound Mind, Barry Krakow, believes that the unaddressed emotional stresses of modern life overwhelm our brains and create micro-awakenings.

He believes these micro-awakenings are so short and groggy that we don't remember them upon awakening, despite many of us experiencing them each night.

His solution is simple – journal about your emotions before you go to sleep. I have nothing to say on micro-awakenings, I'm not a sleep scientist and I don't believe I'm in a position to accurately review controversial sleep research (his idea is not widely accepted).

I have, however, reviewed the journaling psychology research, and I do feel confident when I say I strongly agree. Most forms of journaling are powerfully beneficial. If you find yourself too emotionally charged to easily fall into sleep, journaling may help.

The widespread consumption of caffeine products like coffee and soda masks symptoms of poor sleep.

Let's perform a thought experiment.

You work for the department of homeland security. It's Sunday, and you've just found out about a terrorist plot – all sources of caffeine in the country have been contaminated. That is, millions of pounds of coffee, soda, and red-bull have been rendered inert – they'll still taste good and be ‘safe', but they won't provide an energy boost.

It will take one week to replace all contaminated supplies. What do you forecast the impact to the economy to be?

I would expect something in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Even if you disagree with my wild conjecture, I think you get the point.

Nearly 100% of Americans are at least partially melatonin-deprived.

In the hours before sleep do you expose yourself to artificial light, TV, or your computer?

I expect you might. Yes, it's bad to stimulate yourself too much before sleep, but that's just one small component of a much larger problem.

Melatonin is the hormone of sleep. It makes us drowsy and controls the depth of our sleep.

How do our bodies know when to produce it? Darkness.

In fact, producing melatonin is our bodies default mode of operation. It takes the presence of light to suppress that production.

Once we are no longer exposed to light, specifically to the blue light produced by the sun, our glands start secreting melatonin.3

This is no longer the case – we are now exposed to lamps & electronics which trick our bodies into thinking it is still daytime. The result is a mild deprivation of melatonin.

I take 1mg of melatonin 30 minutes before I go to sleep. This isn't a post about melatonin, so I won't go into the details, but I believe it is safe. All of the studies so far have shown no adverse side-effects from small doses, but all studies that I am aware of have been short-term, in the range of a few weeks to a few months.

I've also installed f.lux on my computer. It changes your color settings automatically each night to block the transmission of disruptive blue light. It's free and 100% safe. How the heck could blocking artificial blue light at night be dangerous?

So hopefully by this point you're at least partially convinced – most people aren't getting good sleep.

Poor Sleep = Poor Mood

The relationship between sleep and good mood is complex. It is also extremely strong.

Those with insomnia are 10x more likely to have depression than those without.4

How do we know if the depression causes insomnia or if the insomnia causes the depression?

It actually works both ways – treating depression significantly improves insomnia symptoms, and treating insomnia significantly improves depression symptoms.5 In addition, insomnia is an extremely powerful predictor of developing depression, anxiety, and psychiatric disorders.6 But enough about insomnia, ‘only' 15% of the US population has insomnia.5

In one study of partial sleep deprivation, subjects who were limited to 4.5 hours of sleep a night for one week reported feeling more stressed, angry, sad, and mentally exhausted. When the subjects resumed normal sleep, they reported a dramatic improvement in mood.7

I don't know about you, but on days when I get great sleep, I also feel great. I have bruxism, so sadly that is exceedingly rare. I am, however, working actively to improve my sleep quality. I'm constantly experimenting with different things, while slowing ramping up my meditation practice.

Perhaps for you it will be easy, but I suggest looking at your sleep as a long-term project. Hopefully I've convinced you of its importance.

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3 thoughts on “Good Sleep: Not Optional for Happiness and High Performance”

  1. Wow, I was just about to make an almost identical blog post addressing caffeine and suggesting f.lux (one of my favorite apps of 2011).

    One more addition, strenuous exercise before bed can keep you awake for several hours, so might want to keep hard sessions for the very early evening or late afternoon if possible. You’re also strongest in the afternoon, so there’s an added benefit, and workouts before dinner will help make the best use of your calories ๐Ÿ™‚

    Great post!

    • Thanks Nicholas! Yup, f.lux is fantastic.

      You know as obvious as that seems in hindsight, I’ve never tried that before. I always exercise in the morning. I wonder if exercising in the afternoon will help with my afternoon slump. Thank you for the suggestion ๐Ÿ™‚


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