Brand building through storytelling

Sleeping for success

18cover395The sleep gods deserted me again last night. I didn’t think I had the presence of mind to read the cereal box, let alone a dense cover story in the New York Times Magazine. But today’s cover story was all about sleep-deprived wraiths like me, so of course I couldn’t resist. Most articles on sleep just recycle the same old stuff: no working in the bedroom, no late-night drinks…yeah, yeah, yeah. I read every one, and and then I wonder why I bothered. Not this time. “The Sleep Industrial Complex” didn’t give me what I wanted: a road map to dreamland. Instead it gave me what I didn’t know I was seeking: a provocative context for my problem.

Think of a good night’s sleep, and you probably think: eight hours, no interruptions. Wrong. We don’t know what normal sleep really is, says writer Jon Mooallem, based on interviews with scientists across North America. For most of human history,  people slept in shifts. In the middle of the night, they’d get up from their lumpy straw mattresses to keep house or look after the animals (conveniently located in the very same room). In parts of Africa, wakefulness is an opportunity to make music and start an impromptu jam session. I wake up at 3 and curse my sleep disorder. But maybe it’s not a disorder at all, just a primal human rhythm over-riding my culturally conditioned sense of what’s healthy and right.

Not until the industrial age was life rigidly partitioned into sleeping time and waking (i.e., working) time. In a sleep experiment at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, scientists recreated the 14-hour nights that our ancestors knew before electricity. The subjects didn’t zonk out; they slept in two four-hour stretches, with hours of wakefulness in between. (Exactly the way my husband sleeps! He’s been told he has a sleep disorder.)

Of course, most of us don’t have the luxury of a second four-hour stretch. We have meetings to attend and kids to ferry about. We have to wake up ready to plan, strategize and create. We tell ourselves that sleep is all about renewal, when in fact it’s all about results in the waking world. So I lie awake and fret about how foggy I’ll feel in the morning while everyone else is charging ahead like massaged, detoxed hikers at a high-end spa. In fact, more than half the population has sleep complaints.

Enter the $20 billion “sleeponomics” industry: beds that you inflate to your desired pressure, pillows engineered to maintain a precise temperature, all manner of gadgets, herbal products and medications. Like eating and exercising, sleep has become a bewilderingly complicated project that you’d better do right or else. Marketers are envisioning messages like “Sleep better, lose weight” and “Sleep better, live longer.” They’re already pushing “Sleeping to succeed.”

Don’t we worry enough about success as it is? The other day at my gym, I saw children working out with personal trainers (I guess bike-riding doesn’t cut it anymore). My friends in the corporate world seem increasingly disheartened by a relentless focus on doing more with less, which belies happy talk about people coming first. The pigeon-holing “What do you do?” is still considered a useful conversation starter (I recently overheard the wise answer “My best”). Sex was assailed long ago by the myth of a right way to have it, and a requisite number of times per week.

You’d think we could drift off to sleep and forget about measuring up. But not so. And that’s where the trouble starts. Jon Mooallem quotes a Duke University psychologist who says, “Unlike most things in life where, the harder you try, the better you do, with sleep the harder you try the worse you do.”

Falling asleep is a little like falling in love. You have to surrender, to untether yourself from external demands and signals. Exactly what I’m not doing as I stare my digital alarm clock and will myself to grab another hour while I still can. But here’s the irony: I’m probably getting more sleep than I know. Studies of insomniacs regularly show a discrepancy of at least an hour between the sleep time that subjects complain about and the time measured by their brain wave activity. What sours the next day has a lot to do with memories of tossing and turning.

Other weirdly compelling facts:

* Sleeping medications (an exploding multi-billion dollar trend) have only a small effect on the speed of falling asleep and the time spent that way. What they seem to do best is erase the memory of insomnia.

* The Neiman Marcus of sleep is the Zia Sleep Sanctuary of Eden Prairie, Minn., where state-of-the-art, noise-canceling ear plugs cost $600.

* All bulldogs seem to suffer from sleep apnea. Who knew?

I’m getting sleepy. Wish me luck. See you soon.

I’ve been on quite a journey in my quest for a good night’s sleep.  Here’s my post about behaviour therapy for insomnia (surprisingly effective); here’s another on a ritual that rescues me from tossing and turning.

Posted by Rona

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