Big Business and the Sacred Mystery of Sleep
A recent Time article pointed enterprising readers toward an enticing business opportunity for our age: the sleep industry. "Don't nap on this," the headline urged. "Capitalize on insomnia as a growth business." Our desperately sleep-deprived population is a market ripe for entrepreneurial harvest.
They call it "the business of sleep." And in an otherwise sluggish economy in 2012, it's booming to the tune of more than 32 billion dollars in the U.S. From medications and mattresses to candles and consultants, this growth industry promises to provide everything the sleepless need.
What most of us think we need is a relatively short obligatory snooze so we can keep going during our waking hours, doing what's really important: producing and pursuing the American Dream, for which one must be wide awake.
It's true that sleep is critical to the proper functioning of our bodies and minds—although no one really knows why. Studies show that sleep deficits slow our thinking, compromise memory, make learning difficult, impair our reaction time, cause irritability, increase anger, decrease capacity for stress, and make us less likely to engage in good habits such as eating well and exercising. Sleeplessness also increases risks of depression and anxiety. In one study conducted by the University of North Texas, people with insomnia were almost 10 times more likely to suffer from clinical depression and more than 17 times more likely to be affected by "clinically significant" anxiety.
Sleeplessness affects our judgment and concentration and is linked with higher levels of substance abuse. It's also linked with a heightened risk of driving accidents, obesity, diabetes, and heart problems.
The sleep-awake connection works the other ways as well: what we do during our waking hours affects the quality of our sleep. From stress levels to eating habits, exercise, and where we let our thoughts dwell during the day, we reap the results at night. Recent research even shows that staring at a lit screen at night, before bed, fools our natural rhythms and causes insomnia.
Sleep needs vary from person to person, but according to the National Sleep Foundation, most adults need at least seven to nine hours of sleep each night. By contrast, American adults average less than seven hours. And nearly two-thirds say their sleep needs are not met during the week. Therein lies the business opportunity.
Sleep is big business partly because we see it as disconnected from waking life. Most of us consider it a forced interruption in our otherwise productive lives. When we're sleepy, it's a tempting luxury we dare not indulge in until our work is done. Yet ironically, our sleep-abstinence undermines our work. And more ironically, our failure to value sleep as a critical part of what we do makes it elusive, and therefore even more valuable.