Happy Sleep: How the Neglected Third of Life Impacts Happiness

Sleep is underrated.

That might not seem like much of a claim. But considering we spend a third of our lives doing it, sleep is a second-class citizen when it comes to our lives. Or maybe even third- or fourth-class.

An activity that consumes so much of our lives must have a profound impact on our happiness, even in waking life.

Happy Sleep - Cat Sleeping

What does it say about us that our relationship with sleep is so dysfunctional? Is it any wonder we’re having more and more trouble finding happiness in life?

If you’ve read any of my articles on the rise of digital natives, the decline of “bigger is better”, or the megatrends that are shaping our future, you know that I’m an optimist when it comes to change, progress, and technology.

Agile is all about responding to change, after all.

But there are rough edges to paradigm shifts. Technology’s ability to facilitate work anywhere, anytime culture is leaving many of us unable to balance work and life (let alone sleep).

Because you’re on this site, my guess is that you’re looking to live The Good Life. That means happiness, that means meaning, that means fulfillment. Usually we pursue this goal by optimizing our work and leading better personal lives.

Today, let’s focus on The Neglected Third of life: sleep. And in particular, how to have happy sleep.

The Sleep-Deprived Society

The average American only sleeps for 6 to 6.5 hours a night. And thirty percent of Americans in the workforce sleep only six hours or less. The ideal amount of sleep for longevity is seven hours a night. Many of us are falling far short of this number.

The results of this mounting sleep deficit are unambiguous. Sleeping for six hours or less every night results in a nearly 50 percent increase in the probability of dying from or developing heart disease. In Japan, a relatively new phenomenon called karoshi is literally killing employees with overwork.

Many of us still walk around with the (discredited) idea of a “mind-body duality.” One upshot of believing that your body and your mind are not a part of the same system is that we believe that through sheer willpower we can keep working, being creative, and solving problems. Even after our bodies have told us to stop and get some sleep.

We have to get past this toxic idea that the damage we put on our bodies will have no effect on our brains. Here’s a short list of all the cognitive errors that crop up when you’re lacking in sleep:

  • You feel tired all the time (and you can’t “catch up” on sleep)
  • You’re short-tempered with family and coworkers
  • The effects of stress are multiplied
  • You’re impaired (as much as a drunk driver)
  • You become negative and difficult to be around

Whenever you feel like you’re being a jerk to people, it might be that you’re really just tired. Context matters. But over time, being a chronically tired asshole will simply translate to you being an asshole. Is it worth it? Are you really being more effective working 10 to 12 hours and perpetuating the 9 to 5 myth?

But if more sleep is the cure, could it be that we’re administering the dose incorrectly?

Is the Key to Happy Sleep a “Second Sleep”?

Lying unconscious for 7 to 8 hours straight is a strange activity once you think about. Did we evolve to be so vulnerable for such a lengthy period of time?

Scientists and researchers are beginning to poke holes in the conventional story about the way we sleep.

Assistant professor Matthew J. Wolf-Meyer at the University of California Santa Cruz has spent years studying the sleep habits of Americans. Wolf-Meyer believes American sleep patterns are highly dysfunctional. But not in the way that you think.

Wolf-Meyer refers to the practice of going to bed at around eleven o’clock at night and staying there until about seven in the morning as sleeping “in a consolidated fashion.” Nowadays, adults are expected to sleep in this manner; anything else—sleeping during the day, sleeping in bursts, waking up in the middle of the night—is taken to be unsound, even deviant. This didn’t use to be the case. Until a century and a half or so ago, Wolf-Meyer observes, “Americans, like other people around the world, used to sleep in an unconsolidated fashion, that is, in two or more periods throughout the day.” They went to bed not long after the sun went down. Four or five hours later, they woke from their “first sleep” and rattled around—praying, chatting, smoking, or making love. (Benjamin Franklin reportedly liked to spend this time reading naked in a chair.) Eventually, they went back to bed for their “second sleep.”

Wolf-Meyer blames the 9 to 5 work day, which arose only after the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution was a comparatively recent event in human history. Wolf-Meyer claims that sleeping from 11 PM to 7 AM is so difficult for modern human beings because our evolutionary makeup isn’t designed for it.

3 Steps to Happy Sleep

Let’s contrast happy sleep with unhappy sleep. Unhappy sleep is unfulfilling. Unhappy sleep leaves you still tired. Unhappy sleep negatively affects your mood.

Happy sleep is the opposite of all those things. Happy sleeps empowers you to tackle your day, instead of cowering under your bedsheets.

Any number of factors go into the happiness quotient of your sleep. Some good, some bad. But not all advice in this area is practical. I’m not going to tell you to quit caffeine, for instance, because that would be hypocritical as shit for me to do.

There are three general principles that have worked for me on the path to happy sleep.

1. Commit to sleeping 5.5 to 7 total hours a day

The science is getting pretty clear on this one. You need to sleep more to feel better and be more productive. However, the usual prescription for 8 hours a day might be too long. New research has indicated that seven hours of sleep is the right amount for adults, and anything less than five and a half is dangerous.

The benefits of more sleep can’t be stressed enough. Imagine feeling better rested and less rushed every day. You can be a more effective human being working fewer, more productive hours. And you will be happier to boot.

2. Carve out a time during the day to nap

Nowadays, I can get 7 hours of continuous sleep a night.

But back in the bowel days of my corporate lawyerdom, this was next to impossible. Aside from drinking copious amounts of coffee bean juice to keep me upright, I took a page from the Benjamin Franklin playbook.

I took a nap.

If Second Sleep is good enough for a founding father, it’s good enough for me.

In addition to sleeping about six hours a night, I used my lunch break to take a nap in my car each day. Lasting no more than a single Pomodoro (25 minutes), I would wake up refreshed and ready to tackle the afternoon.

(If you’re wondering when I ate lunch, it was at my desk, either before or after my nap.)

I can’t tell you how much of a boost this was. While my colleagues were falling over from The 2:30 Feeling ™, I was jamming. Sleep, even a small amount of it, is like a natural form of Adderall that boosts your mental focus and concentration, assuming that you don’t overdo it and get groggy.

3. Forgive yourself for being tired

This piece of advice might seem touchy-feely to some, but it’s powerful.

If it’s 4:00 PM in the middle of the day and you’re a morning person (like the people who run Corporate America), or if it’s 8:00 AM in the morning and you’re a night owl (like President Barack Obama), then cut yourself some slack for feeling tired.

Self-compassion is a powerful trait to have in these moments of less-than-peak productivity.


Do you notice your lack of sleep affecting your happiness? What’s your biggest obstacle to having happy sleep?

Image by King….

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