Sleep is the white whale of American life, the alpha and the omega of all that we are and all that we could possibly be, if only we could get a little more rest. The lack of sleep among Americans is a “public health epidemic,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Somewhere between 50 million and 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders or deprivation, reports the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. The benefits of sleep are fairly obvious (you are well rested); the drawbacks of not sleeping enough are legion (a lack of sleep has been linked to making children more obese, preventing the brain from flushing out toxins and generally increasing a person’s risk of developing all sorts of major illnesses).
The desire for a better, deeper, more restful sleep has spurred more and more people to purchase and use sleep aids. There is a “sleep community,” there are journals, there is the annual Sleep meeting (“the premier sleep medicine event of the year”); this event, which recently wrapped up in Minneapolis, offered registrants sessions on sleep apnea therapy, sleep and chronic pain, and the relationship between genes and sleep.
So how are Americans saying they sleep for 8.7 hours each night? That can’t be true. Can it? (It can’t.) On Wednesday morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released the results of its annual American Time Use Survey, which tried to break down how much time Americans spend doing things. Some of the numbers are anodyne (people watched an average of 2.8 hours of television each day and spent 1.8 hours doing household activities). Some of the numbers belie the idea that we’re moving toward a culture that never stops working (people with jobs work an average of 7.6 hours per day). Some of these numbers are less than encouraging (49 percent of women reported doing housework on an average day, more than double the 19 percent of men who said the same thing).
The sleep number, though, defies our understanding of a populace that is perpetually overworked and under-rested, forever groggily protesting that they’re fine, they just need another cup of coffee. My colleague Christopher Ingram at Wonkblog called up an economist at the BLS, who told him that the sleep estimates were figured out by asking people what time they got into bed at night and got out of bed in the morning, which is not the same thing as figuring out hours of sleep per night. People also do other things in bed, like read blog posts about how much sleep they get. (The estimates also include naps.)
For another look at how much sleep people say they get, we turn to a poll conducted by Gallup in December. It directly asked Americans how many hours of sleep they got per night. The answer was a much more believable 6.8 hours. More than half of the people Gallup polled — 56 percent — said they got as much sleep as they needed. (Meanwhile, more than one in 10 people who slept at least eight hours a night said they would still feel better if they got a little more sleep.) That poll showed that the older we are, the more we sleep, and the younger we are, the more likely we are to say we need more sleep.
How much sleep do you get? (Is it 10 hours? It’s 10 hours, isn’t it? Ugh, you well-rested people, with your cheery outlook and your ability to get through the day without napping under your desk.) Head to Wonkblog and let us know. Unless you’re feeling tired, in which case maybe you should go lie down. The CDC recommends seven to eight hours of sleep a night for adults, but just to be safe, you should see whether you can hit 8.7 hours tonight. Report back and let the rest of us know how you pulled it off.