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In Today's World, the Well-Rested Lose Respect

Almost everyone has heard a story about someone famous who doesn't need much sleep: Martha Stewart, Bill Clinton, Condoleezza Rice, Margaret Thatcher, the list goes on and on.

In our fast-paced, global society, many people consider it a big plus to need as little sleep as possible. But almost every sleep researcher will tell you that most people need at least seven hours of sleep for biological and psychological health. So there is a glaring disconnect between what the messages in our culture say about sleep and the messages we receive from scientists.

The Sleepless Badge of Honor

Think of the scene in the film Thank You for Smoking. Nick, a public relations guy for the smoking industry, is talking to a Hollywood mogul, who calls him up late at night to give him an update on a deal.

"Are you still at the office?" Nick asks.

"Do you know what time it is in Tokyo?" replies Jeff, the mogul, "4 p.m. tomorrow. It's the future!"

"When do you sleep?" Nick asks.

"Sunday," says Jeff, in a priceless moment.

The scene in the film encapsulates this myth that successful people don't need sleep and even provides a rationale: that our fast-paced society no longer lets us have such luxuries.

Dr. Eve Van Cauter, a sleep researcher and professor of medicine at the University of Chicago, says that many people today, especially in the United States, take pride in not getting much sleep.

"Sleeping as little as possible is viewed as a badge of honor here," Cauter says.

Short sleepers, people who can do with five hours of sleep a night, do exist. But most sleep researchers say they comprise only 10 percent or less of the population.

Dr. David Dinges, a sleep researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, questions whether they are "as prevalent as is claimed in society" and whether they are really so special.

Dinges also believes that many people who say they are short sleepers are getting more sleep than they are willing to admit. For example, they sleep on the way to the airport in the limo.

Dinges says people often don't count dozing off as sleep if they are not in their pajamas or in bed. He also notes that many people who fall asleep in meetings or consume large amounts of coffee consider that normal these days and not a sign of being sleep-deprived.

Van Cauter notes that every time she takes a morning flight, one-third of the plane is fast asleep within minutes of the plane taking off.

I live and report in New York City, and there is definitely a kind of pride or resignation here about lack of sleep. I started listening to people talking about sleep habits in the coffee shop where I get my morning coffee.

"Sleeping more than five hours feels like a waste of time. You could be reading or on eBay," Evangeline Morphos, a Columbia University professor, told me.

Attorney Carolyn Schrager's high-school-age daughter told her the one thing she wishes she could change about her life is to do away with the need for sleep.

Less Sleep Than Ever

Although it is hard to get real statistics about how much people slept in different periods of history, there are some pretty good indications that even five decades ago, people slept much longer on average.

Van Cauter notes that the National Cancer Society surveyed more than a million Americans in 1960 and found that people said they got an average of eight-and-a-half hours of sleep.

This was, of course, in a time period when television stations went off the air by midnight, and there were few late-night diversions, like online shopping.

Van Cauter says most surveys today put the average sleep time of Americans at six or seven hours.

"The data is limited, but they strongly suggest that over the past four or five decades, sleep duration has decreased by one and a half to two hours," she says.

Sleep Disconnect

And Van Cauter even wonders about all those famous people who supposedly don't need sleep. She notes that Bill Clinton, a notorious short sleeper, had heart surgery in his 50s, with no obvious risk factors.

Dinges says most people will show serious impairments if they are deprived of sleep for even a few days. The problem is most people assume they are fine when they are not.

"People will often say, 'I am good to go,'" he says. "It is that disconnect between your ability to introspect your alertness and impairment and how impaired you are cognitively, which is why we think many people believe they are doing fine when they not doing so fine."

Cliff Sloan, the publisher of Slate magazine, says he needs only five hours of sleep. He gets up early in the morning, and regards the early morning hours as a special time when the world is peaceful.

He notes that his wife is the complete opposite. She gets eight hours of sleep, would love 10, and "is someone who loves sleep and thinks it is absolutely insane that I am not indulging in one of life's greatest pleasures."

Sloan notes that both he and his wife are extremely productive. These are just differences of temperament and physiology, so it's ridiculous to claim that there is a link between success and lack of sleep, he says.

Sloan may be one of those unusual people who don't need so much sleep, although Dinges says, "I always say to these people, come to my lab and find out for real."

And Van Cauter makes a very unusual argument. She says that the amount of sleep you need also depends on what type of work you do. Celebrities, politicians, leaders of various kinds may actually need less sleep than others because the work they do involves constantly shifting their focus and attention. They might talk to a person about one thing, and then go on to another group, and then move to a new location.

"If, on the other hand, you have to get on the road and drive on a flat highway for four hours," sleep might well overwhelm the same person, she says.

Trendy Today, Dangerous Tomorrow?

Van Cauter believes we are in a period now very similar to where we were with smoking 20 years ago. She envisions a time 20 years from now, when knowledge, research and even litigation (perhaps lawsuits against sleep-deprived drivers who cause accidents) will combine to change public perception so that lack of sleep is finally seen as dangerous, not something to be proud of.

But Dinges says changing public perception may not be so easy since there is something built into our brains that makes us want to do more and more in less and less time.

"We are the ones that came up with artificial light and skyscrapers and going to the moon," he says, not the birds or crocodiles.

There is something very attractive to human beings about wanting to do with less sleep, no matter how much sleep restores us, helps our immune system or allows us to be more emotionally stable.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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