“Sleep is for the weak.”
This was the half-joking mantra frequently chanted by my peers during my late teen years, directed at the first person (often me) to break up a party and go to bed at 2 a.m. It’s a phrase that would echo in my head when I worked through the night to finish essays in college.
It was a half-joking mantra because we all knew it was a stupid thing to say. On some level, we were all aware of our bodies’ need to rest and recharge, but it held an odd kind of power over our thinking all the same.
Now that I’m a little older, I would be quick to tell my younger self to ignore that talk and the unhealthy culture of hustle that inspired it (whether we were hustling to fit in more socializing or more work, it was all the same in the end). I would tell myself that a field needs to lie fallow to produce good things, that sleep is vitally important for a healthy mind and body, and that the phrase should really be: sleep is for the wise.
We live in a culture that doesn’t value leisure and rest (just look at America’s vacation policies). But, the research clearly shows that we need to radically change our attitudes towards this if we want to live healthier, happier lives. According to research collected together in Arianna Huffington’s book, The Sleep Revolution, “Sleep is a performance enhancer… it affects every aspect of our health, from diabetes to cancer to heart disease to Alzheimer’s.”
The National Sleep Foundation discovered that a lack of sleep can negatively affect your immune system. It also links poor sleep with increased difficulty recovering from heart attacks, the risk of developing breast and prostate cancer (as well as the speed with which these cancers develop), dementia, and Type 2 Diabetes, among other things. None of that is to even mention any of the powerful mental health benefits of sleep.
There’s also growing evidence to show that more rest actually saves businesses money. A recent study by the Henley Business School in the UK discovered that businesses who adopted a four-day working week (at full-time pay) reported an increase in productivity, staff satisfaction, and health. The organization estimated that this model of working could save UK businesses £104 billion a year (although they also shared that nearly three-quarters of employers would be worried about making the change, and just under half of employees stated that they’d be worried about other people thinking they were lazy).
I can relate to that concern, myself. Despite my awareness of the importance of sleep, and despite making a conscious effort to value it, on some level I still feel as though my need to rest is some kind of weakness or optional extra, something that I have to earn. Need a nap? Let me get this work done first, then I’ll deserve a nap. Early night? There are so many other things I could or should be doing, extra sleep isn’t a luxury I can afford right now. Brain tired and struggling to function? Don’t rest it by reading or taking a walk, you slacker!
This isn’t something I’m particularly comfortable admitting — it makes me feel like a hypocrite because I’m not practicing what I preach. And, these are things I’d never say to a friend. So why do I talk to myself this way?
As a culture, many writers, thinkers, philosophers, and social scientists over the years have claimed that we started devaluing rest sometime around the industrial revolution, when the more widespread use of machinery in the workplace and home started to influence the way we think about our bodies and productivity. The guilt many of us feel about resting — myself very much included — comes from a larger cultural trend that values profit and productivity above all else. The simple act of reexamining our thoughts about rest can help us make sure that we’re living lives that feel good, rather than just absorbing what the culture around us tells us we should prioritize.
I wonder what would our lives (and world) would look like if we lived as though we truly believed our need to rest was a natural and good part of our existence, instead of an unfortunate weakness, a slightly embarrassing secret?
Instead of pushing ourselves until we can’t focus anymore and then grabbing our phones for a mindless scrolling session, we might schedule in breaks during our working hours, and do something intentional to help us recharge during those times, like visiting a nearby chapel, taking a walk, phoning a friend, or simply stretching our bodies. We’d return to our work refreshed, better able to produce at a higher level.
If we truly believed that rest matters, we might adjust our social calendars, habits, and evening routines to allow us to get to bed on time, and not be embarrassed about leaving events (or skipping them altogether) when we feel tired. We might advocate for better vacation for US employees and be intentional about using all of the vacation days we have at work with pride, instead of feeling guilty about it, as though using up our paid vacation somehow makes us worse or less valuable employees than those who are too busy and important to take time off. We’d help promote the idea that busyness and burnout aren’t badges of honor, and work to create a culture that respects and values leisure and rest.
By resisting the pressure to stay late at work just to prove how hardworking and dedicated we are, by shifting our mindset about the importance of rest, and by making these other small but mighty changes in our lives, we’re helping to plant the seeds for a healthier, more balanced society — not just for ourselves, but for everyone around us and for future generations. You could play a part in bringing about a subtle, but much-needed cultural shift.
Getting more rest will empower you to take better care of those around you, and to be your best self. There’s an ancient wisdom to the idea of having a non-negotiable day of rest — a Sabbath — that we have forgotten and need to reclaim.
So, why not take a moment now to think about your relationship with rest? Ask yourself if you value it — and if not, why not. Ask yourself if you make enough space for rest in your life — not as a reward that you have to earn, but as a basic need, something that you have to provide your body with in order to be able to offer all of the other amazing things you have to contribute to this world.