How much sleep?

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is an intergovernmental organization with 36 member countries that promotes world trade. According to the OECD, Japan has the shortest average sleep of its member countries with 442 minutes per day averaged over the entire year. This compares with the US and China, Britain, France and Spain, all of which average over 500 minutes per day. In terms more common for US citizens, 500 minutes is 8.3 hours per night. Japanese workers are well known for putting in long days with few days off. They have a term, “inemuri” which refers to the practice of falling asleep in public places. The place where we have noticed it is on trains. Those lucky enough to get a place to sit on a busy commuter train will often close their eyes and nod off. It is also common in coffee shops in the cities.

The Japanese are aware that this is a problem for productivity and the health of workers. A new law limits legal overtime to 45 hours per month and 360 hours per year and some companies are adding nap rooms to the workplace to encourage workers to take short naps during the work day.

It is an interesting phenomenon from my perspective because I have only visited Japan as a part of vacation. Like most people, I suspect, I sleep more during my vacation time than I do during a regular work week. I turn off my alarm and awake when my body and the daylight tell me it is time to get up. So I’m at one of the points in the year when I have the longest sleeps each night while I’m observing a culture of long work days and short nights.

I’ve always been a bit suspicious of articles that tell readers how much sleep is needed. I’m not sure that there is some absolute standard that should be applied in every case. I know, from my own experience, that there are a lot of different factors that affect the amount of sleep one gets and the amount one needs. I’ve never been one who needs the most amount of sleep. I know relatives and colleagues who have a hard time functioning when they aren’t getting enough sleep. I, on the other hand, seem to be able to get up in the middle of the night to respond to a need and get through the next work day without a problem.

Our youngest grandson is just one month old and his parents frequently look pretty tired. In fact one of the roles we have assumed in the days of our visit is to look after the young one while his parents catch a nap. I’ve told our daughter that it is completely normal to feel sleep deprived when one has a tiny baby in the home. I remember the first weeks of our children’s lives as the time in my life when I was the most short on sleep. It seems to me like I was constantly tired and always in need of a nap during that period of time. Even with the sleep interruptions that are a part of my work and life these days, I don’t think I’m as short of sleep as I was at that time in my life. Our son in law is back at work after a leave at the time of the birth of his son. His job has a fair amount of overtime so he notices that the baby is waking him multiple times during the night. Our daughter has not yet returned to work, so is taking the lead with nighttime care duties and is learning to sleep when the baby sleeps regardless of what time of day it is. We visit each day and help with care during the day, but head off to our room at night and sleep uninterrupted by the baby.

From my perspective, the time of having infants in our household went by very quickly. Although there were times when we were in the midst of caring for tiny children when it seemed like a long stretch, as a percentage of our lives, it was small. For a few years we got up in the night and had our sleep interrupted. Then our children grew up and moved on with their lives. What seemed to dominate our consciousness now seems like a little thing in the span of a lifetime.

So I really don’t know how much sleep is really required to be happy and healthy. I think that for the most part I’ve been lucky to have figured out how to get the sleep I need. I’ve always been quick to wake from sleep and so have learned to take a nap when I need a little extra sleep and can nod off without having it disrupt my lifestyle. I’ve not been plagued with falling asleep at important times when I should be paying attention.

Achieving balance in life is far more complex than counting the number of hours one sleeps. A human body needs sleep in order to maintain health, but we also need relationships with others, family and community. We need meaningful work and a way to earn our living. There are many demands of our time and part of being an adult is making choices about how we will invest our time. Last evening I held our grandson for more than an hour. I’m not sure about how much time it was because I felt no need to look at my watch while i was so engaged. Our son in law was doing a bit of work on his computer. Our daughter and her mother were sorting and organizing in another room of their house. Our grandson had been fed and changed and had nodded off in my arms. His fingers were grasping my thumb and I was just watching him sleep. The rise and fall of his shoulders as he breathed, the look of his tiny hand wrapped around mine, the feel of him resting on my chest - all of these sensations were so pleasant and wonderful that I wasn’t paying attention to how much time passed. I submit that the time I held him was more restorative than an equal amount of time spent sleeping. If I had to make a choice, I’d take holding a baby over sleeping as a recreational activity.

So while the Japanese study work habits and big corporations add “hirune” rooms where employees are encouraged to nap, I’ll hold the baby. I’m thinking that a few babies would be better for the workers health than the rows of cots and lavender scented air.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!