By Miya Tokumitsu
A 1636 Dutch print depicts a tender domestic scene: a father in his nightdress walks to and fro, soothing a wakeful baby while mom gets some well-deserved sleep. The accompanying verse is equally sweet, assuring us that God, like this kindly father, will comfort us when we become gripped with anxiety and cry out in the night.
But when we wake today, heart pounding at the recollection that we have a big presentation in six hours, many of us might find a last-minute cancellation more conducive to recovering sleep than the idea of a loving God who cradles and sings to us. Adding to our anxiety is the knowledge that the loss of every minute is setting us back. There seems hardly to be sleep enough to go around, much less to share with our loved ones. We know the stats: most Americans sleep a paltry 6.8 hours per night, less than the recommended eight hours. The litany of sleep deprivation consequences is also familiar: obesity, depression, anxiety, loss of libido, and heart disease, among others.
We also instinctively understand that we have a stake in each other’s sleep. In addition to immediate hazards, like overtired drivers taking the wheel or bleary-eyed colleagues gumming up our beautiful spreadsheets, we know that widespread depression and worn-out immune systems affect society broadly, and over the long term. And yet we often understand our sleep in terms of pure individual choice.
For that reason, wilful sleep deprivation remains a cultural ideal. This you-snooze-you-lose mindset was recently captured by internet-marketplace Fiverr’s advertisement poster, which, alarm-like, blared “SLEEP DEPRIVATION IS YOUR DRUG OF CHOICE . . . YOU MIGHT BE A DOER.” After all, what is the condition of sleep, if not an absence of motivation to chase the $5 gigs the company peddles? In this same vein, a 2012 Business Insider slideshow fawned over “19 Successful People Who Barely Sleep.” Marissa Mayer, Yahoo! CEO, got pride of place as slide number one. Slide number three was Donald Trump.
An equally individualistic pro-sleep discourse does exist, primarily in click-bait articles nestled within chum boxes, which limply scold us for watching Netflix in bed. Entering this soporific terrain, sleep-evangelist Arianna Huffington urges readers of her book, The Sleep Revolution, to sleep more, prescribing rituals to maximize its quality, including pre-bedtime soaks with Epsom salts, and counting one’s blessings.
As with our wakefulness, our slumber too is motivated and shaped by anxiety. Those who do protect their eight hours often do so because it helps them perform better at work. It’s no wonder that Huffington, a boss, approves of this motivation for sleep, writing, “It would actually be better for business if employees called in tired, got a little more sleep, and then came in a bit late, rather than call in sick a few days later or, worse, show up sick, dragging themselves through the day while infecting others.”
It may appear that as a society we have conflicting sleep ideals, but really, we’re not so much of two minds as we are fumbling around, trying to work out the role that sleep plays in a prosperous life. We want to get sleep right because we know that doing so is essential to thriving individually—indeed, Thrive is the name Huffington chose for her wellness company—but we fret over the quantity, preparatory rites, and timing of our sleep because sleep lies at the juncture between the private and the social, the biological, and the cultural.
Sleep is intensely private: where, when, with (and without) whom, and how we dress and prepare for sleep are intimate and emotional decisions. But sleep is also social: we modify our behavior and expectations on the assumption that those beyond our immediate domiciles—neighbors, colleagues both local and time zones away—are slumbering at certain hours. And although sleep is private, we do want social reassurance that we are sleeping the right way and look down upon those who choose other arrangements. Just mosey over to the comment section of any website discussing infant sleep, and you’ll find accusations of “baby torture,” and remarks like, “You may think you are fine, but no. You did hurt your baby.” Just as eating habits often come with a moral or ethical motivations that imply—or outright state—the absence of such morals and ethics of those who eat differently, sleep helps constitute our identity, something we generally like to have affirmed.
Enter the market. There are seemingly endless ways to buy yourself some sleep—books like Huffington’s, herbal teas, white noise machines, Ambien, melatonin, ear plugs tucked into earplug cases, therapy. And if you want to put sleep off—stimulants from espresso to cocaine, late night TV, alarms, gyms that open at 5 am.
Contrary to Huffington’s claim to revolutionary momentousness, it seems someone’s always been around to sell sleep optimization. Historian Sasha Handley writes in her book Sleep in Early Modern England that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the panoply of goods deemed ideal for proper sleep by Brits counted breathable bed linens, thermometers to help maintain ideal room temperatures, bedclothes including nightcaps and nightcap liners, even ventilators. “No other daily activity was so heavily governed by principles of good health,” Handley writes, “nor consumed as much time, money, and labour as did sleep.” Yesterday’s silver-gilt ventilator has today become a whole range of electronic devices to track your sleep and analyze which components of your psyche and environment need correction.
We may scream at each other over the “correct” way to sleep, but the truth is that where we come down on these questions—and, indeed, whether we even have a choice at all—is largely a matter of our financial resources and anxieties. As with parenting, there are multitudinous dictums competing over how to do sleep right, but few resources to actually achieve our cultural ideals. For well-to-do families, whether to co-sleep with babies may be a considered choice. No such luck for households that cannot afford a bassinet or crib. Coffee-fuelled all-nighters are technically a choice, but usually one coerced by negative economic consequences for missing a deadline. And what can Huffington say to readers who don’t have a bathtub or even a private bedroom from which to banish their phone?