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How can sleep make us happier?

Our generation has heaps of responsibility on its shoulders – so much so that we might often forget the most important tool to get through the day is high-quality sleep.

With the first day of spring, the Hindu festival of colours, Holi, pancake day, and international happiness day, March is always bursting with reasons to celebrate. But one celebration that a lot of people often overlook is World Sleep Day.

Every year on 18 March, the event celebrates the important role that sleep plays in a healthy human body and mind. It also creates space to discuss the issues connected to sleep – such as insomnia, apnea, or incidents related to sleepwalking.

It might seem odd to need a day to remember our appreciation for this mundane activity. But given that, on average, we spend a third of our lives sleeping, why shouldn’t we zoom in on this essential human state? After all, science has time and again proven that quality sleep leads to sound human minds, and an overall lift in a person’s mood.

Making the time to sleep

In February, the University of Cambridge found that one in three people aged eight to 18 in England were happier during lockdown – and much of this was due to increased exercise and sleep.

An estimated 49% of those who had an improved wellbeing had been sleeping more, compared to 19% whose mental health deteriorated, the report said.

During the lockdown, most of us were given a lot more time to sleep. With no social plans to attend and no work commute to factor into our schedules, many of us were blessed with longer lie-ins and more nights spent falling asleep in front of Netflix parties.

‘The rest of our lives were put on hiatus, so the only stressors we experienced were those immediately around us,’ says Alexandra Johnson, co-founder of Sleep, Dream Doze, a luxury sleep-enhancing subscription box company.

Despite the ongoing pandemic, this ironically reduced stress levels – which lowered cortisol and in turn let people sleep better, she adds.

Lockdown also made time for more exercise, being in nature, and with our families – a combination of which will have all contributed to feeling happier too, says Colin Reeve, a retired martial arts instructor and head of Peaceful Way Retreats.

Reeve notes the disadvantages that came with government lockdowns, including parents having to manage careers on top of home-schooling, people not being able to see their elderly relatives, and the anxiety that came with sharing tight living spaces with strangers. But he says it also gave people the ‘time to pause’.

They could take a look at the way they were living and ask themselves: ‘Is this how I want to keep leading my life?’

Arese Sylvester, an 18-year-old freelance writer, says that she not only got more sleep, but higher-quality snooze time too. ‘Everything was on hold, and the things that made me anxious all the time weren’t playing an active part in my life anymore,’ she says.

Sylvester is an insomniac. Her rough sleeping schedule includes an average of four hours of sleep a night.

But sleep is also an ‘unhealthy coping mechanism’ for her. ‘I sleep to avoid things and then wake up with those same things on my mind,’ she says. It was only during the lockdown that she really felt more relaxed after sleeping.

Nearly a year after the UK government started lifting its third national lockdown, everyone’s lives are almost back to the way they were. We are commuting, we are out drinking, we’re back at school. It also means less time for sleep.

Quality over quantity

Johnson, also a mother of a two and a four-year-old, has faced many nights of broken sleep. Those nights lead to days full of feelings of anxiety and sickness, a head stuffed full of cotton wool. ‘It’s debilitating,’ she says.

She used to be a ‘firm devotee’ to the idea that eight or more hours of sleep would equal happiness. But in recent years, Johnson has come to realise that quality is more important than quantity. While eight hours of broken sleep will make her anxious and unhappy, a solid block of fewer hours leaves her functional and much happier the next day.

‘Sleeping well is essential for high performance in every area of your life,’ Reeve says. Quality sleep underpins wide-decision making, reduces our stress response and helps us to build more resilience.

When we don’t get a good nights’ sleep, we gradually start to accept stress as part of our lives, feel exhausted, unable to think clearly, may struggle to keep exercising and eat well, as well as stop making time for friends, he adds.

Once that happens, people will likely start to lose their love for life and feel like they are on a treadmill that isn’t taking them anywhere, Reeve explains.

You can think of it like a bank account, he adds.

‘If you are in “credit” because you got enough sleep – you are more likely to bounce back when facing a challenging situation. Meanwhile, if you are “overdrawn”, even small things may tip you over the edge into stress, Reeve says.

What happens after years of poor sleep? Reports show we may start to have longer and more difficult periods of anxiety, as well as become more susceptible to chronic conditions and higher blood pressure. Sleep is key to recovering both our minds and our bodies, and can be used to reach our physical goals, as well as see ourselves more positively.

Despite this, it’s important to remember that sleep isn’t necessarily the answer to all our problems.

In fact, those suffering from depression may find that they don’t want to do anything but sleep. And that’s okay too.

It’s important to remember that recovering from difficult experiences and periods of anxiety all take time, as well as a balance between different factors in life. Quality sleep won’t necessarily tend to how we feel about losing a loved one, or a distorted relationship with food, or experiencing domestic abuse, for example.

But sleep, as well as movement, connections with other human beings, and a good source of food, will all feed into a happier mind and a happier body.