A society struggling with sleep
Most of us find it difficult to wake up, and are awakened, not by our willpower, but by the obstinacy of the alarms that keep buzzing even after we have put them on “snooze” several times. “The average sleep is 15 minutes more,” read an old quip from Readers’ Digest, and it still rings true today. Indeed, there’s one thing our society can’t seem to get enough of: sleep.
It wasn’t always the case. While there may have been a great variation in sleeping patterns across cultures and history (for instance, preindustrial Europeans may have slept in two phases; Filipinos and Hispanics had the siesta), the past decades have seen an erosion of our sleeping times. Today, surveys (eg, UP Population Institute, PhilamLife) suggest that Filipino adults sleep for an average of 6.2-6.8 hours – below the ideal of 7-9 hours – with some groups (ie, call centre agents) on the lower end.
One explanation for our reduced sleeping time is our radically altered lifestyles. In the past, most people engaged in manual labour in daytime, and would probably be too tired to stay awake anyway. Without exercise, many live a “sedentary lifestyle”, making it harder to convince their bodies that it’s time to sleep – especially when time awake is linked to greater productivity.
Another is the changing physical and social environment. In the past, there were less auditory or visual stimuli to keep us awake: they were nothing like today’s booming videoke sounds or glaring billboard lights. Moreover, our living configurations – dorms, condos, apartments, informal housing – bring us in close contact with people whose voices and noises we have to contend with.
Related to all these is the availability of nighttime activities. Even with the advent of television, most stations shut down by late night. Today, however, we can watch news at 11pm, live European football at 4am, and YouTube videos ad infinitum. Then there are jobs that actually require staying up at night: call centre agents, health workers, police, as well as store attendants, drivers, security guards, and many others who support a 24/7 economy. Again, these did not exist just a few decades ago in the magnitude we see today.
It’s not just the inability to sleep; having to wake up early in the morning is another challenge. In rural communities, of course, people wake up early because it’s easier to do agricultural work when the sun is not yet high. Today, however, many of us need to wake up early because of the traffic. One of my students, Javi Sabarre, says he leaves Muntinlupa for Diliman before the rush hour, but arrives too early for class – so he ends up sleeping in his car. Ideally, sleep should be in darkness, comfort, and little interruption. People’s adjustments – sleeping in buses and cars, and at office desks – bring us to another thing that has diminished of late: the quality, not just the quantity of sleep.
Lack of sleep has implications for both individuals and society at large. Studies confirm what common sense tells us: It impairs performance whether you’re a student encumbered with exams, a doctor on 24-hour duty, or a professional swamped with work. In the long term, meanwhile, lack of sleep is associated with poor health outcomes, from diabetes and hypertension to depression and a weakened immune system.
Equally laden with consequences, moreover, are the ways in which people try to manage their sleep: from students drinking (lots of) coffee, security guards taking energy drinks, and drivers taking shabu. While our insomnias are driven by many factors, we must be mindful of the economic and medical effects of occupational sleeplessness – and what policies can be taken to address them.
Meanwhile, we can also take steps to improve our own “sleep hygiene”. Letting go of one’s mobile phone when in bed and exercising regularly are just two of the steps we can take for a good night’s rest. As for the siesta, perhaps it’s also worth considering. Recent research shows that taking a “power nap” is actually beneficial for our health and mental performance – but this is something that our elders probably knew all along.