How do we construct our cultural narratives?
One way, it seems, is that we look at data points in our own lives, then cast about for friends’ and families’ stories, to see if they match. Then, once we have a loose hypothesis, we look for some authoritative voice to back it up. This can be a statistic, a study, a figure like the surgeon general, etc.
The question of how much we sleep is very much subject to this shaping. We do sleep most nights, and so there are a lot of data points to pull from. As happens with any large set of data points, there will be variability. Some nights you get a lot of sleep, and some nights you don’t. Last night, for instance, I didn’t get much sleep because I stayed up until 12:30AM reading, and woke up around 7:15AM when Jasper informed me that his little brother wanted me to get him out of his crib.
I feel fine this morning, because I took a 2-hour nap yesterday afternoon. But since humans really need to sleep, not sleeping well on any given night makes that night feel terrible. The awfulness sticks out in our minds, thus giving the data point a lot of weight. Other people tell us of their horrible nights as well. Then someone — the National Sleep Foundation, or business publications, or doctors trying to seize the cultural zeitgeist — will use various figures to back up this idea that Americans are increasingly sleep deprived. We like this narrative because it makes our bad nights part of a larger trend, and also shows just how dedicated we are to our jobs and families. There’s just no time to sleep! Or, as the NSF reported a few years ago, working moms of school-aged kids spend less than 6 hours per night in bed on weekdays. (See the Briefcases with Backpacks section at the bottom).
Except this doesn’t seem to be true. Sure, plenty of people are sleep deprived, and any given mom may have a 6-hour night or two. But overall, Americans seem to be sleeping plenty. The American Time Use Survey, which relies on time diaries rather than personal estimations, pegs our average at 8.67 hours during any 24-hour period. This is up from 8.6 the year before. 8.57 in 2007 (so much for the narrative that the stress of the recession has us sleeping less). An average covers all kinds of people, from teens to retirees, but even working moms of school-aged kids sleep, on average, a bit over 8 hours a day.
We all like to complain. We all like to paint the atypical as typical (something I wrote about in a USA Today column called “Not So Sleepless in Seattle” last year, and in a BNET column last week). But I think the Sleep Myth is one of the most pernicious untruths in our culture. Because it sends a message to young people, particularly women, that if they dare to try to combine building a career with raising a family, they will never sleep. Indeed, that was the exact quote from one of the Princeton students that Amy Sennett polled for her 2006 thesis on attitudes toward work and childbearing — “I plan never to sleep.” It would change the story line entirely if young women would hear that not only is it possible to work, raise kids and get enough sleep, it isn’t even that rare.