“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
For many people, the cruelest part of daily life is the transition between wakefulness and sleep. When you should be sleeping, you want to be awake; when you should be awake, you want to stay asleep. It is easy to regard sleep as a torment: hard to attain and then hard to give up, day after day after day.
According to the CDC, about 70 million Americans have chronic sleep problems. Insomnia affects between a third and a half of U.S. adults at one point or another. And we Americans are not unusually afflicted—one 2016 study reported that worldwide, 10 to 30 percent of the population experiences insomnia; some studies find rates as high as 50 to 60 percent.
But behind this torment resides an opportunity to increase our quality of life, if we can change our relationship with our slumbering selves. Instead of worrying about how we can more efficiently induce sleep, we need to stop resisting it. And to do that, we need to stop seeing sleep as purely physiological and start considering its transcendent significance.
It is no major revelation to most people that adequate sleep improves well-being. One recent study of more than 30,000 U.K. residents found that people who increased their quantity of sleep over a four-year period got about the same happiness benefits as they would have from eight weeks of therapy, or from winning up to $280,000 in a lottery. Well-rested people are more social and have more positive emotional experiences with co-workers and romantic partners. Sleep deprivation, however, lowers happiness by degrading emotional-memory recall and encouraging a scarcity mindset, pitting people against others.
If all of this seems obvious, why don’t we sleep more? Physical conditions, poor sleep hygiene, work, stress, and young kids are all common barriers to proper sleep. Another barrier comes purely from within, however: what scholars call “bedtime procrastination,” when we simply put off going to bed because we are doing other things that seem more important at night (but that we regret when it’s time to get up). Researchers find this is very common, resulting in almost a third of adults getting fewer than six hours of sleep per night, on average; more than 40 percent say they sleep too little or have daytime tiredness during three to four days per week or more.
A particularly pernicious variant of this behavior is called “revenge bedtime procrastination,” in which some people put off sleep as a form of rebellion against their own inner authority. The writer Sylvia Plath described it nicely: “I wonder why I don't go to bed and go to sleep. But then it would be tomorrow, so I decide that no matter how tired, no matter how incoherent I am, I can skip one hour more of sleep and live.” Weirdly, we deprive ourselves of sleep to show some sort of independence from—well, ourselves.
Revenge bedtime procrastination seems illogical, insofar as the perpetrator and the recipient of the revenge are the same person. But the explanation is fairly straightforward: It happens when a person harbors some deep resistance to being “told” what to do in an area as personal and fundamental as when to go to bed, likely because she resents being told what to do in other parts of her life. So she fights back by exerting her own authority and staying up.
Personal control over our environment—or even the illusion of control—is deeply connected to our emotional balance. A 2019 study in the journal Emotion showed that when we perceive a loss of control over our environment, our positive emotions decline; exerting more control lowers negative emotions. Given that sleep is something we can directly control, we may flout common-sense rules about getting to bed, because we are unconsciously seeking a better emotional state—until the morning, when the evil alarm clock fills us with loathing and regret.
The advice we get on sleep is usually pretty obvious: Deal with any underlying physical or mental-health issues; don’t neglect sleep because you are busy; sleep more hours. This is sensible counsel, but it doesn’t address the roots of resistance to sleep. Here are two things to consider that can make the sleeping behaviors you neglect become better and easier—and give you greater happiness as a result.
1. Quell the rebellion against your inner tyrant.
The fact that we don’t recognize and correct the absurdity of revenge bedtime procrastination suggests that the whole conflict is governed by what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls “System 1”: our automatic, reactive brain. The trick is to move the bedtime decision from System 1 to “System 2”: our metacognitive brain, with which we can consciously reason, analyze, and manage our decisions.
Simply thinking about the issue and acknowledging the ways you might be sabotaging your own sleep will give you a big head start, especially if you have never reasoned through the problem before. Next, make some resolutions. Set a bedtime that is both realistic and sensible. Thirty minutes prior, tell yourself, I have control over my schedule, and I am choosing to go to bed at this time. Perhaps this self-talk sounds childish to you, but it’s really a way to deal with the situation maturely by quieting your inner squalling toddler.
After that, take inventory of the other areas of your life over which you can exert more conscious, adult control. Are you a revenge junk-food eater? A revenge late arriver? A revenge money spender? This might be the chance for you to make peace with yourself in a whole new way.
2. Go from physical to metaphysical.
Even if you recognize that sleeping properly helps you feel happier, you might still dismiss it as an instrumental good—a necessary but boring investment, like eating your vegetables or paying into a retirement account. That’s a missed opportunity to understand sleep as an intrinsic source of wisdom and happiness, which spiritual teachers have done for millennia.
One strain of ancient Hindu wisdom, for instance, focuses on the unique clarity that sleep can bring. The early-20th-century Hindu guru Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi taught that sleep is the “pure state” in which there is full awareness, in contrast to “total ignorance in the waking state.” In the Bible, God himself spoke to Joseph in dreams, telling him to take Mary as his wife and later to flee with his family to Egypt to save the baby Jesus. Pope Francis is known to have a special devotion to Saint Joseph, and when he has a problem, he writes it on a slip of paper and places it under his sleeping-Joseph statue—and then goes to bed himself.
Teachings like these are practically the complete opposite of our conventional understanding of consciousness, which posits that we are conscious when we are awake but not when we are asleep. To apply this unconventional insight, before you retire for the night, try pondering for a few minutes the life puzzles you want to solve. Offer them up to sleep, and then see what your pure state yields. After waking, spend your first few minutes writing down what you learned; keep a journal of your progress, and notice how much you learn from your slumber.
It is tempting to consider these insights in a purely practical way, in an effort to solve the sleep problems that vex so many of us. And in light of all the studies above showing the cognitive and emotional benefits of proper sleep, you might also be tempted to say that modern research is simply catching up to ancient spiritual wisdom. True enough. But don’t miss the key distinction: that sleep is an opportunity to grow as a person, resolve non-sleep-related quandaries, and advance spiritually.
Starting tonight, treat bedtime like a liturgy in which you make the decision to seek greater philosophical depth and clarity about life. Before long, you might look forward to your voluntary nightly adventure—and you just might find yourself getting to bed on time.