Sleep: Part of this American life

The American Time Use Survey is out today. Every year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics does this large scale time diary study to find out how different Americans spend their hours. Rather than ask how many hours people devote to different categories, researchers (generally) have people talk through the previous day. This method removes some of the problems that introduce bias into other surveys. Since it’s not about any one category of time, people are less tempted to give socially desirable answers. Since it’s about a specific day, we don’t get caught up in questions of what is a typical day. The day may be atypical for that person, but the average person has atypical days. It should come out in the wash.

It’s not perfect, of course. Someone might remember going to bed at 10 p.m. when in fact she went to bed at 10:30. Or she might not remember what she did. Or she might be doing multiple things at once, which can be hard to categorize (the ATUS tries with “primary activities” and secondary activities, but still).

In any case, this method produces a very different perspective on how Americans spend their time. No where is this more evident than sleep. According to the 2014 numbers, released today, the average American sleeps 8.8 hours on an average day. This is 8.54 hours on weekdays and 9.4 hours on weekends. While this does include older teens and retirees (who are Americans too!), the BLS statisticians break these numbers down for different demographic groups. And it turns out that some of the people we might think of as most sleep-deprived — say, moms of young kids — actually come out a bit above the average at 8.92 hours/day.

I know my rolling average (from my multi-week time diary) is about 7.5 hours/day. I also know that my own personal experience means nothing about a population average, nor does anyone else’s, which is why saying “that can’t be true, because I don’t sleep that much!” isn’t really an argument. It doesn’t have to be true for me, or you, or anyone we know. Sleep quantity also has nothing to do with sleep quality. But it is an interesting data point, and suggests that the various laments about our sleep-deprived society might deserve closer examination.

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