The Many, Many Benefits of Sleep For Creativity and Happiness
It is hard to over-exaggerate the benefits of sleep for a good life.
Table of Contents
Intro: Why Learn Sleep Science? // Sleep Science Explosion
Part 1: Sleep and Learning // Learning Physical Skills, Applied Creativity, Irony of Early School
Part 2: Sleep and Happiness // Fatigue and Pessimism, The Neural Reward System, Common Sense
Part 3: Sleep Experimentation 101 // Why It’s Hard to Change Sleep Habits, Track Your Sleep, Smartphone Out of Hand’s Reach
Outro: Keep It Simple and Sleep
Intro: Why Learn About Sleep Science?
Sleep makes life worth living.
It has been proven to have an impact on emotional regulation, with more sleep leading to greater emotional control and happier feelings. Sleep helps you store new facts and names in your long term memory.
You’ll feel better and remember more if you get more sleep.
Unfortunately, sleep is at odds with hustle culture. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is the sort of mindset that I lived in during my formative years. My crew was made up of some the most ambitious musicians at Berklee College of Music during the years 2009–2012, and we were more likely to be in the studio for a 2am-6am session than to get a good night’s sleep.
Even back then, we saw the value of occasional sleep cramming. My roommate and I called a 10+ hour night of sleep a “Big Sleep” and considered this a great virtue to achieve.
For the most part sleep was considered laziness. You wanted to sleep as little as possible, and sleep strategies were more likely to focus on efficiency (i.e. the discredited uberman method) than on maximizing sleep time.
Outside of school, I spent a lot of time at the now-defunct UNRegular Radio — a cannabis-themed station that focused on music concerts and festivals. My show, “The Smokol Show” was 1–3am. Sleep health: not good.
In retrospect we were well-intentioned but way off base with our eager work schedules. There’s a reason why the musicians at the one of the world’s most famous music schools, Juliard, are officially encouraged to take two hour naps.
Sleep Science Explosion
There has been a recent explosion of interest in sleep science.
Arianna Huffington put out a book evangelizing the benefits of sleep in 2015: The Sleep Revolution. There was a lot of press around the book and it was the first time in recent memory that sleep science hit my radar.
That book was one-upped by a PhD sleep scientist named Dr. Matthew Walker who released a truly wonderful book called Why We Sleep. This book is cram packed full of so much science and passion for the benefits of sleep that it won me over immediately.
It wasn’t a hard sell. Prioritize sleep and feel better? Sounds good to me.
But *why* is sleep worth it? Isn’t it true that sleeping less and working more helps you to get ahead? It seems like more hours of work will help you to reach your greatest levels of productivity, even if you have to be tired.
In my experience and opinion, it is the opposite. Being well-rested is the first principle of doing anything good. I’d rather have 4 hours of work per day in a truly rested and nourished state than to have 12 hours of work while tired and stressed — not just because it would feel better, but because I honestly believe I’d get way more done in the 4 hours.
This isn’t a given — it’s something I learned for myself and through other peoples’ reporting.
The rest of this article is comprised of anecdotes and scientific examples that are meant to get you feeling excited and passionate about sleep. I hope that this will get you so interested in sleep health that you’ll sleep more hours per average after reading.
If I’m able to convince you to sleep more each night for a few weeks, you will probably feel a big improvement in your life and then you’ll continue to do it. That is the goal.
At the very least I hope you will find this entertaining and informative. Let’s go.
Part 1: Sleep and Learning
Sleep is a learning enhancer.
Sleep has many benefits for retaining information that we learn. It’s true for facts as well as for kinetic information or “muscle memory” — whether you want to learn all the state capitals or learn to juggle, you’ll need to sleep to make it stick.
This is a great place to start thinking about sleep because the scientific backing for it is very clear.
Learning Physical Skills
For musicians, being able to do a thing accurately at high speed is important. It’s amazingly difficult to play riffs or beats at any real speed.
Which is why it’s relevant that a good night’s sleep will increase the maximum accurate speed of a learned physical skill by 20%. In other words, you can play a piece of music 20% faster if you get good sleep the night after practicing it.
The same idea applies to esports. If you do a bunch of shooting + aiming drills in a Battle Royale game, then you get a good night’s sleep, you’ll be boosting your in-the-moment reaction time by 20%.
That 20% may not seem like much, but it is a huge bonus. It’s more clutch wins instead of near-misses. The coolest part is that it will appear in your life as “effortless mastery” — with the same effort, you will perform better by having accrued more sleep.
This also suggests that sleep is a way to break through performance-related plateaus. If you are struggling to achieve a competent speed in anything — language recall, yoga poses, whatever — the first thing to do is to get more sleep. That alone, with no other adjustments in technique, could break you through to a higher level.
Another aspect of learning is creativity. This is the opposite of accuracy. It’s the ability to explore new ideas, which should get better as you learn new things.
REM sleep in particular helps the brain to create new associations between pieces of information. Your brain recognizes new patterns that can unlock new “aha” moments of insight in the following 24 hours. If you learn a lot of information and get a good night’s sleep, you can really expect to have creative insights in the following days.
This is trippy. What if you could reliably have “aha” moments within 48–72 hours of encountering problems? If it works even some of the time, this is a big deal.
It’s better to learn new information in the hours right beore sleep. If you sleep soon after you study, you’ll retain more and have more ability to remember unusual combinations of ideas. This surprised me, since I like to read books early in the morning. Unfortunately that means I’m less likely to apply that information in a creative way, compared to reading before bed.
Reading a physical book before bed might be the perfect pre-sleep activity. As just mentioned, you are more likely to retain the information. It also gets you off of the computer a while before trying to sleep.
The Irony of Early School
Kids often have to go to school at extremely early times of day. This is as ironic as it gets.
Teenagers naturally don’t fall asleep until 11pm. The American Academy of Pediatrics officially recommends that school times should start later for this reason. I remember when I had to get up before 6am to get to school on time. Sometimes I would have to wake up even earlier, before 5am, for before-school rehearsals.
Having school that early interrupts the brain at exactly the time when it is most prone to experience REM sleep. It stops the very thing that would allow for information retention.
It’s hard for many grown adults to get to bed at a reasonable hour. Why should teenagers be expected to deal with this against their natural physical state and against a lot of cultural pressure too? It’s madness.
School should start later. Even if it had to end at the same time, it would be better to delay the start time by an hour or two to allow kids to get the sleep their growing brains need.
Part 2: Sleep and Happiness
It should not surprise you that sleep is directly linked to one’s emotional well-being.
When we’re tired, we get irritable. It is harder to focus and harder to think in any abstract way. We even crave unhealthy foods when we are tired.
Needing good sleep to feel well is not a matter of willpower or laziness. It’s a scientific fact based on what happens in our bodies when we do or don’t get enough sleep. When the body isn’t able to do the restorative work that takes place during sleep, we tend to feel worse in the days that follow.
Fatigue Causes Pessimism
It’s a fact that being more tired makes a person see more negativity in the world around them. A study checked this out by showing people a variety of information and testing which bits of info were noticed / retained by the subjects.
When subjects got tired, they noticed less of the positive information that they were exposed to. This is a reduction in the positive bias of the individuals
It’s not an illusion or a sign of human weakness that a person gets cranky when they feel tired. Their brain is literally noticing more of the negativity in the world. It’s like they are wearing a pair of pessimism goggles and the only way to get rid of them is to go to sleep.
The opposite is also true. Being well rested is like an instant teleportation into a better world. When you wake up from 7+ hours of sleep, your life has gotten better by default.
The Neural Reward System
Sleep health has a broad impact on the brain’s reward system.
The brain has different pleasure and pain chemicals to guide itself towards preferred outcomes. When these systems are in balance, they help a person to pursue healthy and productive activities.
When these systems are out of balance, they can cause addiction and other bad behavior. The simple feeling of temptation can cause a person to do truly unhealthy things as a result of unfortunate brain chemistry. Most people want to follow habits that will put their brains into a balance that causes a positive, energetic, and relaxed feeling.
It turns out that people who suffer from narcolepsy do not have properly functioning brain reward systems. As a result, they are not prone to suffer from addiction even though they are commonly prescribed highly addictive drugs.
There are major problems for the sufferers of this illness due to malfunctioning neural rewards. This often leads to a chemically-induced depression.
In general, it seems like healthy sleep is a big part of feeling good while doing the right things in life. It keeps the unconscious neural reward system in balance.
Getting good sleep makes a person more likely to be happy. The more I learn about this stuff, the more it feels like I am returning to a fact that I already intuitively knew.
Every sane person prefers to be well rested most of the time. We don’t want to miss out on opportunities due to sleep, but if all else is equal, we want to feel restful. The fact that science proves there are many performance benefits to sleep is just a bonus.
This is part of why I am so enthusiastic about sleep health. It’s so easy!
Compared to diet or exercise, getting more sleep is a pleasant endeavor. The biggest problem (other than insomnia for some people) is FOMO, not wanting to miss out on things, but it’s an illusion. I get more quantity of high-quality consciousness per day, and therefore more memorable / enjoyable experiences, when I’m sleeping well.
Part 3: Sleep Experimentation 101
By now I am hoping that you are convinced of the many benefits of sleep. The next step is to take action and improve something about your habits.
As many as 60 million people suffer from insomnia in America alone. For some, it is easier said than done to get more hours of sleep. Even if you don’t consider yourself an insomniac it’s still challenging because many people have strong habits around sleep.
The sad fact is that many people have accepted a low quality of sleep. They doze off in front of the TV intermittently or revel in the nightlife only to wake up early for work a few hours later. This is no good! Why are we so bad at sleep?
Why It’s Hard to Change Sleep Habits
When we are tired we’re the least apt to use our willpower to overcome bad habits. This is a problem because that makes sleep habits really hard to change.
For example if a person is used to watching YouTube for two hours before bed each evening, it will seem disproportionately unpleasant to cut out that activity. Even if in theory it is a bad idea to stare at a screen before trying to sleep, the moment of action will often become a moment of weakness due to simple fatigue.
On top of this, most employment and education schedules are at odds with sleep for no real reason. As we discussed when talking about high schoolers and sleep, it’s truly ironic to schedule classes for early in the morning.
What can you do to improve your sleep despite the odds being stacked against you? Here are the two most useful — and extremely simple — tactics I have used to get better sleep.
Track Your Sleep
The Quantified Self movement was started by Kevin Kelly back in the earlier days of the internet. There isn’t too much information about it on the internet, but the idea is profound: What if we got WAY better at measuring data about our own lives?
If you could track your data better, you could have a sort of life dashboard with important metrics like how healthy your diet, sleep, and other habits are.
I applied this methodology to sleep. Keeping a small notebook and pen by my bed, all I did was write down the hour I went to bed and woke up each day. On days where I slept less than 7 hours, I would try to make time for an afternoon nap.
Simply tracking this information immediately improved my sleep habits. I realized I was often accidentally overlooking basic data about my life — for example, if I hadn’t slept well two nights in a row. In a situation of low sleep, rather than saying “I need to push through and keep working,” I would notice the data and tell myself “I should stop work early today to get more sleep.”
Instead of staying up late and burning the candle at both ends, I found myself cherishing every opportunity for sleep up to 8–9 hours per day.
On the flip side, I avoided some lethargic days by noticing that I’d already gotten enough sleep even though I felt tired. On these days I tend to feel fine if I just work for an hour — so the sleep journal helps me tap in to more of my high energy and productive flow states. Otherwise I might make the mistake of laying back down and getting more lethargic.
As they say, what gets measured gets managed. The simple act of tracking my sleep hours has profoundly improved my sleep habits.
Smartphone Out of Hand’s Reach
This is another extremely simple and theoretically easy sleep experiment. What if you don’t have your phone within hand’s reach whenever you lay down to sleep?
With something as fragile as sleep, I want to make my efforts to improve it as easy as possible. This way I can ensure near-100% compliance and within a few weeks I can know definitively if the experiment is having beneficial results. Keeping the phone away from the bed is one of those simple things.
And as easy as this sounds, in those pre-bed moments of fatigue, it’s really tempting to just bring the phone to bed and check one or two more emails, or maybe listen to a little bit of of a podcast… I still find myself going to bed with the phone, only to immediately get back up and put it away out of reach. It’s like a little battle with my stubborn inner toddler who doesn’t want to give up the phone.
I find the benefit of this habit to actually be more profound in the morning than at night. It stops me from grabbing the phone immediately upon waking. Rather than checking the clock (or worse — checking Instagram), I check my internal feelings to see if I’m ready to get up or not.
Conclusion: Keep It Simple and Sleep
Both of these experiments are so simple that you might be wanting more. However, I’d encourage you to be a little more self-aware. Do you *actually* track your sleep hours and/or always keep your smartphone out of hand’s reach?
For example, can you tell me exactly how much sleep you got for the last two weeks? If you said yes, are you sure? Or can you confirm that you haven’t brought your phone to bed more than once in the last week?
If not, I recommend giving these things a try. Keep it simple and follow the rules strictly for two weeks — enough time to really see the difference.
You might be amazed at how many of your day-to-day feelings are directly related to sleep.
Now if I don’t feel good, the very first question I ask myself is “am I well rested?” Most of the time, like the vast majority of the time, the answer is no.
My goal with this article was to convince you to sleep more… How did I do?
Do it! Sleep more!! And after you do, drop me a line here or on Twitter and let me know how it went. I’m @heymattsokol everywhere.