1 Morning, 3 Conversations, 1 Conclusion

1 Morning, 3 Conversations, 1 Conclusion

June 30th, 2013
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My friend and I had planned to take a train together to the south Peninsula where we both worked. He texted me as I waited at the train station: “I had to drive, because I was afraid walking I might miss the train.” He was a few minutes late because he’d had trouble getting up that morning, and we drove in his car rather than waiting for the next train, because he was afraid of being late to work.

As I rode with Friend 1, I had the following text exchange with a mutual friend:
Friend 2: “I’m so sleepy! How r u”
Me: “hey. head hurts so much. left home at 7 to head to mtv.”

By 8:15 am, we were all at work, and another friend was texting me from her med school class:
Friend 3: “just spilled my snack on the floor. i am so sleepy. in class. so sleepy.”
Me: “my head hurts too…”
F3: “i can’t conco;kkkkk”
F3: “ooops i cant concentrate”
M: “ouch”
F3: “i know”
“i am going to sleep alot tonight”
M: “sounds good”
“i am going to take a bath tonight
and then sleeeeeep”

This longer conversation elaborates on what is actually going on in each of the other brief interactions: people are not sleeping enough. Not sleeping enough has dire consequences: lowered intelligence, long-term memory loss, poor reflexes, irritability and lack of patience in human interactions, lack of energy for family and community, susceptibility to indoctrination, and the list goes on. In a 2006 paper, the Institute of Medicine claim that sleep loss is associated with a range of health problems including: hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke.[1] As one example of the impact on our society: “Almost 20% of serious car crash injuries in the general population are associated with driver sleepiness.” Or as you see in the above conversation, you lose the ability to text accurately, the ability to use your fingers to move snacks from a bag to your mouth, and the ability to concentrate.

So was this just a coincidental morning, or is there a pattern? If so, why are people not sleeping enough? What can we do to correct the situation?

Well, I’m glad you asked, because I’m writing specifically to answer those questions.

1) This was no coincidence. I am tired at least 9 days out of 10. I would say that among 20-40 year old housemates that I have had in the last couple years, that rate would be about 8/10 or more. I can only think of one person (who did not have a job or go to school), who was not consistently tired. Think of the people you know well and interact with on a daily basis– what percentage of them seem tired? If this was the one time that Friend 3 or I had felt tired, would we be talking about plans to sleep with all the anticipation of seeing your favorite band live for the first time? No.
Think of how much coffee is drunk in the U.S. (the 1/3 of Americans who drink coffee average over 3 cups per day[2] ). Think of how common “energy” drinks have become.[3] Think of the assumptions made in the “5-hour Energy” commercials[4] : that everyone is so tired that they can not make it through their day without a chemical boost of some kind. This is a pervasive problem: our health, sanity, intelligence, and more are at risk because of sleep deprivation. A CDC survey of adults in 12 states had the following self-reported results: 35% sleep less than 7 hours per night, 38% had unintentionally fallen asleep during the day within the preceding month, and 5% had fallen asleep while driving within that same 30 days.[5]

2) Why don’t people sleep enough? You know before I even say it: they’re out partying. The common folk are just too intent on socializing and having a nice easy time of it to get around to sleeping. No wait– that’s right, it’s WORK. There are a couple reasons Americans work too hard.
First, the demands placed on American workers have been escalating the last few decades. 27% work more than forty hours/week; on top of which we average 51 minutes commuting to and from work, and hours of work-related tasks from home; 5% work two jobs.[6] Think again about those 5-hour energy commercials– why are the subjects so tired? Because they are stuck at work endlessly. The one person I know well who doesn’t suffer from chronic sleep deprivation? A man without a job. As people are squeezed to a lower and lower standard of living, they become ever more desperate for a job. Which means that on the one hand they will work for lower pay or on the other hand they will do *more* work for the same pay.
Companies like 5-hour Energy, which claim to be helping you get through that work day, are actually cynically and knowingly forcing you to work longer days. By creating a new standard of how hard people can work, they force everyone to work longer in order to compete with the first people who start taking these drugs. Is there someone out there who is willing to do your job all year without taking a vacation? Then you’d better not take a vacation if you want to keep that job.
Generalizing, there is a power dynamic between workers and employers (corporations, generally). As the balance of power shifts ever further in favor of corporations, they are in a position to ask ever more of workers, while workers are in a position to acquiesce to ever more. This is the primary underlying cause of ever greater sleep problems: the increasing power of corporations.
The second reason, less important since it primarily affects the small middle class, is ambition. These self-motivated individuals want to attend a ‘highly ranked’ school, work at a ‘highly ranked’ firm, get a promotion sooner, etc. There are often professional hurdles to get where you want, such as 3 years of 90-hour/week slave labor as a resident if you want to be a doctor. Many of these people would not self-identify as ambitious; they have just been following a prescribed path laid before them at a young age. But the behavior they exhibit is goal-oriented, fatalistic, and elitist: they *must* reach some elite position. And the tiering of positions along with the hard work of these over-achievers is used to chasten others for not working hard enough, and to move the blame from the employers to the employees when their job does not treat them well.

3) Once you’ve asked the right questions, and analyzed a situation, the answers have a way of emerging. There are a few things we can do to unravel this problem. First, we can foster a better culture, valuing thoughtfulness and devaluing the trappings of elitism; placing importance on what we do, and less importance on where we get.
The two most crucial possible remedies are similar and mutually reinforcing, so it’s hard to say in which order they should be pursued. We need to work less, and we need to reduce the power of corporations. Each of these would lead naturally to the other: if we all worked less, corporations would control less and less of our lives, extract less profit from us, and be forced to treat us better, since we were no longer agreeing to as horrible terms of exploitation. Thus their power would be decreased. On the other hand, if we lowered the power of corporations (e.g. by breaking them into smaller pieces, or by having actual labor laws (40 hour work week?), or by convicting them and punishing them for their crimes), they would not be able to force people to work as long, and thus people would find time to sleep more.
Another easy thing we can all do is pass on the stimulants like caffeine; whatever extra they allow us to do is almost surely less valuable than sleeping. When we feel fatigue or pain or a headache, this is an important message from our body, which we should heed.

I hope you understood this; if not, one of us needs to sleeeeeep a lot tonight :-)


  1. Institute of Medicine. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2006. []
  2. CoffeeResearch.Org []
  3. 400 Million gallons in USA in 2010; 1.2 gallons/person []
  4. here’s one if you haven’t seen them []
  5. CDC. Insufficient Sleep is a Public Health Epidemic []
  6. US Census []

This entry was posted on Sunday, June 30th, 2013 at 11:24 am and is filed under Commentary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to “1 Morning, 3 Conversations, 1 Conclusion”

  1. Vinay Says:

    I’m less sure about the motives, but I agree on people don’t generally sleep enough.

    There’s been a lot of research about sleep recently, here’s a potentially relevant blog talking about one of the recent books in the field: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/07/17/sleep-and-the-teenage-brain/

    I haven’t seen the studies on the students, but those findings about improvements in testing, reductions in on-campus incidents, etc look compelling.

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