17 SEPT 2020

Most of us know first-hand that lack of sleep has a profound effect on how we function day to day. From irritability and increased clumsiness to greater susceptibility to colds and chronic diseases, there’s ample research to back this up. Now, a large new study also confirms that being sleep deprived really can suck the joy out of life.

Even minor night-to-night fluctuations in sleep duration can have consequences in how people respond to events in their daily lives,” said psychologist Nancy Sin from The University of British Columbia.

Sin and colleagues used survey data from almost 2,000 adults between the ages of 33-84. After assessing their baseline conditions, participants were asked for eight consecutive days about their sleep duration, daily stresses, and experiences of positive and negative events.

“When people experience something positive, such as getting a hug or spending time in nature, they typically feel happier that day,” explained Sin.

“But we found that when a person sleeps less than their usual amount, they don’t have as much of a boost in positive emotions from their positive events.”

Luckily, this effect also goes the other way. Longer sleep makes positive events seem even better, and protects against the effects of daily stress. The team found these effects are even greater on those with chronic health problems, such as chronic pain.

“For those with chronic health conditions, we found that longer sleep – compared to one’s usual sleep duration – led to better responses to positive experiences on the following day,” said Sin.

Unexpectedly, researchers found no link between sleep duration and negative reactions. This suggests sleep is particularly important for positivity, the team notes in their paper, and that it’s important to look at both positive and negative effects when investigating sleep.

They also didn’t find that reactions to the day’s events predicted subsequent sleep quality, which has previously been shown in some studies, but not others.

Sin and team caution their study has several limitations as their data relied on patients’ recall, which is not always accurate. But this is one of the first studies to examine these impacts of sleep in a natural setting, as opposed to laboratory conditions, and their data could be useful for future investigations looking into long-term outcomes.

Sleep clearly needs to be a priority in our lives, but this can be far easier said than done. A recent study showed just how interlinked stress is with our ability to sleep, as both physiological processes share the same neural network.

So it’s no surprise that the collective stress we’re experiencing due to the pandemic is affecting our sleep and even our dreams.

But even before these world altering events, research consistently showed many of us in western countries are not getting enough sleep. Up to a third of US adults report sleeping less than the recommended seven to nine hours and 12 percent of Australians get less than 5.5 hours.

That said, if prioritising sleep were easy, so many people probably wouldn’t be having such trouble doing it.

As well as stress and chronic health conditions, other factors like disconnection from our natural sleep cycles, having to do shift work or multiple jobs, and loneliness can make getting the recommended amount of snooze time very difficult.

There are some great tips on dealing with sleeping trouble; but if we could shift some of these larger issues that impact sleep, it seems far more of us would have a chance at experiencing not just better health outcomes but greater joys in life as well.


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