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  • Writer's pictureDr. Winifred Lender

Why Did Sleep Become Such a Dirty Word?

Updated: Jun 4, 2021

Our societal view of sleep has shifted from a behavior that was romanticized to one that is seen as an "annoyance" that keeps us from being productive. This changing view of sleep has dire consequences for our ability to sleep well.

The Cost of Being Sleepless

Around 20 million prescriptions for sleep aids are written each year, and about 10 million more Americans buy over-the-counter sleep aids. The number of people seeking treatment for insomnia and other sleep disorders is on the rise.

Our Changing Societal View of Sleep

Sleep has a bad reputation. It has become a topic we talk about with annoyance or disdain. People complain about “poor sleep,” “not being able to fall asleep” and “waking up in the middle of the night.” They lament the time it takes to get a night of sleep as though sleeping were robbing them of doing something more valuable. It is rare that anyone today talks about the virtues of sleep: how “vital” and “beautiful” sleep is. In fact, sleep is now seen as a task that needs to be completed, albeit belligerently. For some, who struggle each night to sleep, sleep has become as dirty word, full of negative meaning that should not even be mentioned.

This view of sleep as a kind of “work” or an “annoyance” is a sharp contrast to the image of sleep in the past as something very necessary and enriching for life. The 18th century poet Thomas Dekker described sleep as ”the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together." Likewise, William Shakespeare wrote about the virtues of sleep in many of his works.For example, in Macbeth, Shakespeare wrote: “Sleep that knits up the ravelled sleeve of care ... .Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, Chief nourisher in life's feast.” The ancient view of sleep as essential to life and as restorative presents a sharp contrast to our modern view of sleep as “work” and dispensable — something that goes at the bottom of the list of “must dos.”

The distant roots of this modern view of sleep can be traced back to the invention of the electric light bulb that allowed us to stay awake even when it was dark and forever ended the notion of night as a time for just rest. In addition, the more recent evolution of our “always-on” virtual world and the modern Western world’s spirit that prides itself on always being busy and productive have further deflated the old view of sleep as a necessary and beautiful thing. The change in view of sleep can be seen clearly in two famous 20th-century figures.

Thomas Edison (credited by many as having invented the practical electric light bulb), who reportedly only slept four to five hours a night, famously said, “Sleep is a criminal waste of time and a heritage from our cave man.” Another important figure, Margaret Thatcher, is reported to have said, “Sleep is for wimps.” The message is clear: The most productive people in society feel that sleep is expendable. This belief seems to have been received loud and clear by our modern-day society and is now etched into our universal consciousness.

Today there is a growing culture that prides itself on lack of sleep. Many people talk about how little sleep they need and rattle off the numerous activities they have accomplished before 9 o'clock in the morning. People gloat at having been so “productive” and even look down on those who “sleep in” or don’t accomplish a litany of tasks before breakfast. Others report that they know that sleep is important but fail to prioritize it, always finding something else that is more important to take its place.

The Cost of Our New View of Sleep

The consequence of this new view of sleep as expendable is a society that is perpetually overtired. On a recent Gallup poll, 56 percent of the population reports that they are chronically overtired, and 34 percent of these respondents reported being dangerously overtired (at risk for an accident). According to a Stanford University study, higher levels of extreme sleep deprivation are found in samples of nurses, medical students and college students, with numbers soaring to 80 percent of these populations. Not only are people putting off sleeping for other activities, but when they do sleep, they do not sleep well.

Around 20 million prescriptions for sleep aids are written each year, and about 10 million more Americans buy over-the-counter sleep aids. The number of people seeking treatment for insomnia and other sleep disorders is on the rise with the National Sleep Foundation reporting that as many as 40 percent of the U.S. population experiences some form of insomnia (transient or chronic) each year. In addition, sleep deprivation has been linked to a multitude of other disorders, including obesity, inattention, impulsivity, depression and memory problems that are also increasing in society. It seems that this new view of sleep is not helping us feel better rested or sleep better, and could be contributing to a host of other maladies.

The Need to Shift our Current View of Sleep

What are the implications our shifting view of sleep? Does it really matter if we think of sleep as a task that must be endured or something to be avoided? The simple answer is yes. It matters very much how we think about sleep. The way we think about sleep influences how we organize our lives — if we make time for sleep, how we perceive our sleep and what we are willing to do to ensure a good night of sleep. If our belief is that sleep is something to be minimized, or at best tolerated, we will not prioritize sleep — we will fail to make time for it and then be annoyed that we are not sleeping well. In contrast, positive beliefs about sleep can become a self-fulfilling prophecy that can put us in a position to have good sleep habits and achieve good sleep.

If we make a concerted effort to break away from the current view of sleep and push ourselves to view it differently, more like those of previous generations, we may be surprised to see changes in our sleep. If we move toward valuing sleep, we will make time for it and focus on routines that encourage good restorative sleep. By thinking about sleep as important, we will start acting as though it is, and are likely to see improvements in our sleep. The important first step to improving our sleep is really believing that sleep is essential to our health.

Have a good sleep!

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