Last week we talked about buying your way into happiness. What better way to top that this week than to sleep your way to happiness? 😉
Alright, I know… you’re probably going to say — “I can spare some money to buy happiness. But, C’mon! Finding time to sleep? Ha! Did you forget that we’re parents here?!!”
Actually, no. That was exactly what I thought when I first saw the suggestion in this article to sleep more to become happier.
And then I came across this article which reports Norbert Schwarz, Ph.D., a professor of psychology, to have said:
Making $60,000 more in annual income has less of an effect on your daily happiness than getting one extra hour of sleep a night.
What really made me decide to take on this topic however, was this fantastic review of a book on my to-read list. It makes a very strong argument that kids who do not get sufficient sleep not only tend to lag in terms of IQ and are at a higher risk for ADHD and obesity, but also are neurologically prone to retaining negative emotions and bad memories more than good ones, based on how the brain works.
Now, we have no choice. Good sleep habits — both for yourself and the kids — is not just a luxury but a key integral element of the quest for our family’s happiness!
So this week let’s simply focus on sleep…
Note: This article is not about sleep training your baby — for that I refer you to Heather’s wonderful guide of 62 Tricks to Get a Baby Sleeping (it’s even formatted exclusively for sleep-deprived parents!)
This article is more about changing our mindset about sleep and creating some good sleep habits for the whole family to last a lifetime, ultimately paving the way for long-term happiness.
Alright, let’s dive in.
Importance of Sleep: Why Sleep is Not Just a Luxury, But a Necessity
Unless you live on a desert island completely cut off from the modern society, chances are, you have more to do than the number of hours to do them in. With that kind of time economics in play, it is rather easy to fall into the trap of thinking that sleep is a luxury enjoyed only by the unambitious, the unproductive or the uninteresting folks.
That couldn’t be farther from the truth!
I’m learning that sleep is more of a necessity than a luxury for far too many reason than I can list here, but the ones I found most interesting are –
#1 The impact of sleep deprivation on focus and resolve
Now, honestly, I can function quite normally for several days with only about 6 hours of sleep. And then one day, I just crash very early and “fill the bank again”, so to speak. And then repeat the cycle. It works wonderfully for me in terms of being productive. Or so I thought.
It turns out, I am paying a rather steep (unintentional) price for this kind of “productivity”.
According to this wonderful article, research shows that
Whether we are sleep deprived or not, we lose focus at times. And that is precisely where the sleep deprived person lands in a trap. […] If we are sleep deprived, our brain can’t refocus.
The study pointed in that article used fMRI imaging to compare and contrast the activity in the brains of well-rested subjects and those that were deprived of sleep for just one night. What they found out was that while the brains of the sleep-deprived subjects functioned normally most of the time, it intermittently shut-down suffering from something similar to a “power failure”. This made it much harder for them to compensate for the routine loss of focus or to stick to a resolve!
Didn’t think about that, did you? Well, neither did I. It probably explains why I sometimes find it a lot easier to stick to my resolve of not yelling at my daughter no matter how much she pushes my buttons and at other times, I fly off the handle at the slightest provocations!
#2 The impact of sleep deprivation on relationships
And talking about flying off the handle… there are times when something that my husband says doesn’t bother me the least bit, but then there are times when I could just snap his head off at the slightest of provocations.
The findings of the study reported in this article that explores the link between the sleeping habits of couples and their arguments, probably explains this behavior 😉
In this study 78 couples were tracked over a period of two weeks and the findings indicate that even if one partner had a bad night’s sleep, the relationship suffered the next day. Researchers of the study hypothesize that the lack of sleep results in
- reduced empathy
- increased negativity
- reduced ability to resolve differences and
- increased selfishness
which eventually led to the strain in relationships.
Good relationships with people we most interact with is a key factor in determining a person’s happiness — so this ain’t a happy sign.
#3 The impact of sleep deprivation on emotions and memories
Here’s something even more disturbing — when you are sleep deprived the part of the brain that controls emotions and memories goes bonkers…
In the study reported in this article, researchers studied the brains of 26 sleep-deprived, but otherwise healthy, subjects as they viewed images of objects going from neutral (a picture of a spoon, for example) to gory (a picture of shark attack, for example). They found that the brains of the sleep-deprived patients were 60% more reactive to the negative stimuli! The researches concluded that this over-sensitivity to images with negative connotations was due to a shutdown of the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that controls emotions — due to sleep deptivation.
A similar observation related to memories is reported in the book NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children as well. The authors point to a study where college students were asked to memorize a list of words. Those who were sleep deprived could remember 81% of the negative words (like “cancer”) but could remember only 31% of the positive/neutral words (like “sunshine” or “basket”)!
The author explains –
Negative stimuli get processed by the amygdala; positive or neutral memories gets processed by the hippocampus. Sleep deprivation hits the hippocampus harder than the amygdala. The result is that sleep-deprived people fail to recall pleasant memories, yet recall gloomy memories just fine.
Yikes. Scary, right?
#4 The impact of sleep deprivation on the ability to learn
But wait, there’s more… (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the temptation to use that :))
In the same book, the authors report another study where 77 kids in fourth and sixth grades were randomly assigned to sleep either 30 minutes earlier than their normal bedtime or later for 3 nights in a row. They found that when the kids were tested later, the cognitive ability of the sleep deprived kids was 2 grade levels lower! In other words, sleepy sixth-graders performed in class like mere fourth-graders!
And this doesn’t just affect the kids. Next time you are faced with a colleague who just doesn’t get the point you are trying to make, gently ask him how his sleep was the previous night. (And if you find it hard to keep up with the meeting or conversations around you… you know where to look!)
#5 The impact of sleep deprivation on health
Just in case you’re not quite convinced of the perils of sleep deprivation yet, here’s a quick look at its impact on health.
By golly, this one’s nasty! Lack of sleep can make you less immune to something as simple as common cold all the way to put you at an increased risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes and obesity. It can cause kidney disease and is also associated with Alzheimer’s. It can lead to anxiety and depression. It can reduce your sex drive. Heck, it can even make you ugly.
And I’ve only scratched the surface!
I hope by now you are sufficiently rattled to stop wanting to shortchange your sleep to get just a little more done…. that last load of laundry, that late night show on television or that project/homework that just needs to be finished tonight doesn’t seem so urgent anymore does it?
That said, carving out the time to make sleep a priority isn’t going to be easy. It has to be a matter of conscious choice. And like all important-but-hard things in life, we’re much better off establishing a few good habits than battling with our will power on a daily basis.
So, let’s now focus on how to build those better sleep habits for our family.
Tips to Establish Good Family Sleep Habits
Like with most other posts published here, not all tips will work for everyone. Pick and choose the ones that work best for you and your family. The key is to turn them into immutable rules so eventually everyone in the family develops good sleep habits and in the long run, reaps the rewards of being more energetic, healthier and happier.
1. Sleep Just How Much You Need – No More, No Less
How much sleep do we really need? This article from the National Sleep Foundation suggests a range of 7-9 hours for most adults (scroll to the bottom of that article to see the suggested range for your kids) but cautions that the exact amount varies based on age, health, lifestyle and the quality of sleep. My personal rule of thumb is to get at least the minimum number of hours in the range specified.
And watch out… when it comes to sleep, you can apparently go too far. According to this Time magazine consultation with sleep expert Daniel Kripke,
There is just as much risk associated with sleeping too long as with sleeping too short. The big surprise is that long sleep seems to start at 8 hr [for adults]. Sleeping 8.5 hr. might really be a little worse than sleeping 5 hr.
So, for a few days watch yourself and figure out how much sleep you need within the suggested range to stay focused and positive the next day. I find that about 7 – 7.5 hours of sleep lets me be less snappy and more happy on most days. And for our 5 year old daughter, 10 – 10.5 hours seems to do the trick.
2. Create a Sleep Ritual
My daughter was not a very good sleeper when she was an infant. Every parenting book/article/magazine that I read suggested one simple solution – create a sleep ritual. We went at it with the determination and zeal that only sleep-deprived desperation can fuel. It took a few iterations, but in the end what came out of it is a bedtime ritual that has survived the test of time, and is relished by each one of us. Winding our daughter down and putting her to bed is the best part of the evening for all of us.
Here’s the thing though. While I’ve always been a huge proponent of a sleep ritual for my daughter, it never even occurred to me to set up one for myself! Not even when I thought I had borderline insomnia and struggled with sleep issues!
- Pick a fixed time to start your ritual. Joel, the author of the original article starts the ritual at 9:30pm. I start mine at 10:45pm. I am usually with my laptop at that time, so I use the Nuclear Option of the Chrome extension StayFocusd (it’s free) to literally kick me off the net. You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, right?
- Do something that disengages you from the days activities for a few minutes. Joel goes on a 20 minute walk. I try to reclaim my headspace through some meditation. I’m not really a “natural” at meditation and have failed many times to get it going, but the headspace guided meditation app (free trial of ten 10-minute sessions, paid if you want to continue) is working for me at the moment.
- Don’t re-engage with anything on your to-do list (personal or work related) after that. Joel spends the time until he falls asleep reading fiction. I just crash 😉
- Follow up with a fixed wake-up time with a fixed morning ritual. Joel says he’s recently added a morning walk to the routine. I wake up at 6:30am and then it’s time for a nice, long shower followed by hugs and cuddles from my daughter, and a hot cup of coffee 😉
As Joel says, allow for imperfections and modify the routine until it feels just right and you actually start to look forward to it. I’ve always considered myself a borderline insomniac who could never quite calm down her mind to get a good night’s rest, but I find that this is helping me immensely!
3. Avoid Consuming Stimulants in The Latter Part of The Day
Maybe I’m just getting old, but I’ve found over the past few years that I cannot handle any caffeine in my system past noon. Apparently, caffeine has a half life of 5-7 hours — i.e., it takes about that many hours for our body to flush half of the caffeine we consume out of our system! So, if you are sensitive to caffeine like me, you may want to watch out. One cup of coffee in the morning might be OK, but caffeine later in the day could keep you alert all night.
And watch out for the beverages like pepsi or mountain dew which are loaded with caffeine – both how much you drink and how much your kids are drinking!
4. Make Sleep a Priority, but Stop Worrying About it 🙂
Have you heard the Aesop’s Fable of the goose that laid the golden eggs? Well, sleep is that goose. Just as taking good care of the goose would guarantee a golden egg each day, if you make sleep a priority, you will be a lot happier, healthier and energetic the next day. Kill the goose to get all the golden eggs at once — sacrifice your sleep in the quest to be more productive — and you will have nothing left.
It is particularly important that we teach this lesson to our children right from a young age. One of the sad side-effects of the progress we are making as a human race is that, the number of things for us to do is multiplying at a breakneck pace, but the number of hours to do them in remains constant. Consequently, the temptation to give up the basic necessities to chase new things is never relenting. The foundation you lay down for your kids now in terms of a good mindset about sleep, and good sleep habits can make the difference in how they deal with whatever life looks like by the time they grow up!
That said, if sleep hasn’t been coming easy, stop worrying about it! As Dale Carnegie says in his best-selling book How to Stop Worrying and Start Living,
Remember, no one was ever killed by lack of sleep. It is worrying about insomnia that does the damage–not the insomnia.
So if you’ve been afflicted by the dreaded insomnia, let it be. Focus your attention on figuring out a good sleep routine instead, and eventually things will fall in place.
I know. It did for me!
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
As always, no amount of knowledge does you any good until you take some action! Start taking action right now by spending the next 2 minutes to take a quick inventory of your family’s relationship with sleep –
- On average, how many hours do you sleep each night?
- How about your spouse and kids?
- If it is too few hours, what is the one thing you can change starting tonight to improve things?
- If it is too many — Wait, what? Seriously? How???? 😉
I would love to see your responses – drop me a line in the comments below.
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
Over the course of this week, try different things to establish a healthy sleep routine for yourself and your family. Whenever you get a chance, talk to your kids about the value of sleep. Make sure that you are intentional in teaching your kids that sleep is important, so they don’t start believing in the default notion that it’s disposable!