The great thing about sleep studies is that they never fail to relay uplifting news. I have yet to come across a sleep study that suggests we should work harder and make do with four hours of unconsciousness. Time and again, the studies come as different variations on the same tune: Sleep is good for you, and you'd better do yourself a favor and start getting more of it - unless you want to lose your hair or aggravate a personality disorder.
While other strains of medical research always seem to be wagging their fingers at us for failing to eat enough kale or breaking our vows to smear on sunscreen every single day, sleep research doesn't think we're the bad guys. It takes pity on us, absolving us of pretty much any sin committed in our Frankenstein state. "You did what?" the sleep research says. "Poor lamb, you must not be getting your eight hours."
No wonder sleepiness has become our Twinkie defense. It justifies everything from unimaginative cooking to neglect of friends and, best of all, when we say we're too tired, nobody's going to think we're lying.
The quest for sleep is keeping America wide awake. We're getting an average of six to seven hours of sleep a night, a good deal less than that recommended eight to eight-and-a-half. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 47 million American adults may be at risk of injury and physical and emotional difficulty because they do not get enough sleep. The National Institutes of Health estimated that 50 million to 70 million Americans suffer sleep-related problems. A local study conducted by Sleepy's Mat tress company revealed that of all the New York boroughs, Brooklyn is the most sleepless, with 33.3% of residents surveyed saying they get fewer than 6 hours' sleep a night.
Sleep specialists point to the light bulb as the culprit behind our topsy-turvy schedules. Back in the darker days, people followed the sun's lead and slept 9 or 10 hours a night. Now we're staggering about like zombies, canceling our Saturday night plans to stay home to stare absently at "Desperate Housewives" - we conk out before "SNL."
There's help on the way, though.
A new batch of hypnotic drugs, which are supposed to be even safer and more effective than Ambien, is due out this winter.
Last April, a company called MetroNaps opened up for business on the 24th floor of the Empire State Building. For $14, customers can get 20 minutes inside one of the white pods, where they can listen to nature sounds and float off into oblivion.
And, of course, the cheerful sleep studies keep coming out.
The latest addition to the armamentarium of studies comes from a British think tank, Demos. The findings are friendly: People are not getting enough sleep, and it's damaging to society as a whole. "At a time when the 24/7 attitude dominates western culture and time asleep is viewed as wasted time," Demos warns, "many consider that a need for sleep indicates laziness or a lack of moral fiber." Sleep-deprived workers are liable to watch their performances dip or, worse, get into accidents on the job. Relationships are under duress, with a higher number of disorder-afflicted bedfellows snoring like tugboats.
In the report there's even a little chart of all the damage that's being done. There's a central "patient" bubble, with arrows pointing to all to parts of the patient's life that are at risk (trouble spots include "Children - bonding activities limited by lack of energy" and "General public - at risk from road traffic accidents").
Further, it says the sleepiness epidemic is making a day at work even more unpleasant for already tired workers. Half of all bosses say a lack of sleep makes them irritable and prone to yelling at employees.
The study recommends banishing the stigma attached to midday sleeping and making napping at the workplace feasible - even encouraging it. Bosses should set up "shut-eye pods" in the office. Libraries and train stations are urged to install coin-operated sleep cubicles.
In a recent radio interview with the BBC, the study's foreman, Charles Leadbeater, said the findings especially apply to creative workers. Ideas do not come to the bleary-eyed. As Western economies lose more of our manual jobs to developing countries, we depend more on creative talent. A person's IQ drops one point with each lost hour of sleep. So, if we want more lightning-bolt moments, we need to start napping.
Napping enthusiasts stress the differences between napping and sleeping, and they get very annoyed when their conversational partner can't grasp them. (A napper is never "sleeping," he's "napping.") A night of sleep involves all the different stages of sleep, whereas a nap is a lighter sleep that's easy to emerge from. A nap should be taken midday, about eight hours after waking up, so as not to disturb the natural rhythm of our wake-sleep cycles.
Napping is the cashmere version of sleep. It's a luxury that very few of us can afford to have. Sleeping is waking up with drool on your pillow and mystery creases on one side of your face. Napping is Mediterranean siestas with honey-tinged sunlight coming through the blinds.
But back to the Demos study. Now, it's awfully kind of those think tankers to suggest that office chiefs make it possible for workers to get daily power naps, but, in assuming ubiquitous "nap pods" will make our lives easier, the study glosses over something vital about the art of the nap. Not everyone can do it. You can bring the napper to the pod, but you can't make him get 40 winks.
There are nappers and there are the rest of us. We non-nappers have a hard enough time sleeping at night and cannot doze during the day, no matter how hard we try. I fear the only times in my life I've been able to nap were when I was small enough to do so in a crib. On the odd occasion when I do try to experiment with napping, I force my eyelids shut and I'm instantly transported to a mental landscape full of work obligations and unreturned phone calls and my failure to remember the last time I paid my cell-phone bill. I don't nod off. I don't even nod.
"There are patients with insomnia who can't sleep at night," Gerard Lombardo, director of the sleep center at New York Methodist Hospital in Brooklyn, said. "We call them 'wired and tired.' They just cannot fall asleep. Their nervous system is hyper-aroused. And it's safe to say they'd have a harder time falling asleep in the day."
One of MetroNaps' co-owners, Christopher Lindholst, was adamant that everybody can benefit from time in one of his rent-a-pods, but he agreed that some are better at napping than others. "It's a learned process," he said. "You become better at it. It's a question of comfort and familiarity. It's like riding a bike. The second time is easier."
Well, maybe. But I've tried much more than once, and it never pans out. And I have a sinking suspicion if I tried more than once in the office, for all my colleagues to stare at, I'd feel even more frazzled and nervous.
In the case of a surgeon or ambulance driver who feels that sleepiness might endanger others, a nap couldn't hurt. But to say group naps could be much use for an office full of high-strung, sleep-deprived go-getters is a bit of a stretch.
If helping employees get rid of their under-eye circles and Sahara-dry imaginations is such a priority, why not let us get the proper night's sleep in the first place? Let us befriend the snooze button, shuffle into work an hour later than usual, and get the job done right.