I’ve been thinking a lot about the way sleep is perceived in our culture. As more and more evidence comes to light about the physical, mental and spiritual impact of lack of sleep, I’m left wondering why we, as a society, don’t value sleep more than we do.  Every week, I seem to read a new article about how sleeplessness is linked to Alzheimer’s, diabetes, depression, cancer, obesity, heart disease, and the list goes on and on and on…

Yet, society seems to have these mantras that glorify busyness and sleep deprivation. These are just some of the phrases that reflect the values we hold about sleep in Western culture. (I think I’m guilty of saying every one of these at some point.)

  • “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” (Warren Zevon)
  • “Sleep is for the weak.”
  • “No rest for the wicked.” (derived from The Bible)
  • “You snooze, you lose.”
  • “Cool kids don’t sleep.”
  • “Money never sleeps.” (“Wall Street 2”)

Some of the biggest names in recent history are known for boasting about not getting much sleep. Margaret Thatcher, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Nikola Tesla are just some famous people who proudly proclaimed that they need very little sleep. Did these people perpetuate the problem society has with sleep and rest? In response to the question of how much sleep people need, Napoleon is quoted as saying “six hours for a man, seven for a woman, eight for a fool.” (Does this mean, as a woman, I am halfway to being a fool?) 

In the present day, there are plenty of “successful” people who try to impress us with their ridiculous sleep schedule, including Donald Trump, Martha Stewart, Condoleeza Rice, Tom Ford, Marissa Mayer, Roxy Jacenko, and Kevin Rudd. I’m not sure whether to blame them or feel sorry for them. Maybe, they are just victims of society’s attitude towards sleep?

There is no doubt that technology, and particularly the Internet, has played a primary role in encouraging our hectic, 24/7 lifestyles. The demands to be contactable, available and informed are more intensified than ever. Staying up to date with text messages, news, emails, and social media is enough stress to keep anyone up at night. Plus, with the Internet in our pockets every day, we never really switch off from work, study, or even our social lives. The true genius of the Internet is that we can connect with people from all over the world, in real time. But the flip side of this is that there is no real down time. We have friends, family, or colleagues, who are in different time zones to us, that we want to feel connected to. There is always someone, somewhere, awake.  

The problem seems institutionalised too. Students are expected to achieve so much that the “all-nighter” is dangerously common.  Some companies have a culture where working through lunch and doing overtime is considered the norm. Despite laws to protect us, I know many people who are working long hours without breaks.  Unfortunately, this means that some people are relying on caffeine (or something stronger) to get through their days or nights at work. 

Being overworked and sleep deprived should not be a state that we aspire to. Even being a labelled a ‘hot mess’ seems kind of sexy these days.  Being eternally busy should not be a status symbol.  Exhaustion is not a measure of success, or worth. Exhaustion is a physical state where your body actually starts to shut down. It’s not sustainable, and it’s not meant to be. 

Sleep deprivation is, quite literally, a form of torture. I wouldn’t wish it on my enemies, and certainly not on my friends.  So, I have decided to try to catch myself when I think or say things that devalue sleep and rest. I’m going to avoid competing with friends and colleagues in a game of who is the busiest or the most tired. I’m going to do my little bit to shift our society’s toxic attitude towards sleep.  

In the words of sleep guru, Ariana Huffington, “Giving sleep the respect it deserves doesn’t require dramatic changes. Start by finding a way that works for you to ease your transition into sleep each night.”