It’s well established and well documented that one of the key wellbeing and performance boosting activities is…

Sleep zzzzzzz

It’s also a powerful Zoom-Out enabler in that it takes a cognitive effort to Zoom-Out and if you are tired, then your ability to do this is diminished.

Sleep could also be a “keystone habit” because when we have had enough sleep we:

  • have more mental energy – important for Zoom-Out activity
  • are more likely to exercise
  • have greater self-discipline – so tend to eat better for example
  • get less frustrated by setbacks in the day (higher resilience)
  • find it easier to get through a demanding day – one that demands mental/physical energy and alertness

Sleep as Antidepressant

Not only can sleep boost happiness, it can be more effective in some cases than antidepressants. Consider this  quote from the book “Lost Connections”

Irving and Guy realized—using these, the real figures—they could calculate how much better the people on antidepressants were doing than the people on sugar pills. Scientists measure the depth of someone’s depression using something named the Hamilton scale, which was invented by a scientist named Max Hamilton in 1959. The Hamilton scale rages from 0 (where you’re skipping along merrily) to 51 (where you’re jumping in front of trains). To give you a yardstick: you can get a six-point leap in your Hamilton score if you improve your sleeping patterns. What Irving found is that, in the real data that hadn’t been run through a PR filter, antidepressants do cause an improvement in the Hamilton score—they do make depressed people feel better. It’s an improvement of 1.8 points.

Irving furrowed his brow. That’s a third less than getting better sleep. It was absolutely startling.

– Hari, Johann. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions – Bloomsbury Publishing

So getting better sleep in some cases can be three times more effective than anti-depressants. It should be noted that Hari does point out that individual cases do vary and that anti-depressants also have a short-lived but potentially powerful placebo effect and can in times of crisis provide a useful role. But the point here is to highlight the relative size of the impact of getting a good nights sleep.

Jordon Peterson is a Canadian clinical psychologist, cultural critic, and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto. Actually, this paints a one-dimensional picture of a fascinating person and increasingly cult figure. He also draws upon philosophy, neuroscience, anthropology and religion. He’s also the only member of the research-oriented Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto that also has a clinical practice.

In Peterson’s latest book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos”, he describes how important sleep is for mental health. In the following extract, from “RULE 1: Stand up straight with your shoulders back”, Peterson is talking about keeping anxiety at bay – or more generally, walking the line between Order and Chaos – a key Peterson theme in this book and his other works.

“Erratic habits of sleeping and eating can interfere with its function <keeping anxiety at bay>. Uncertainty can throw it for a loop. The body, with its various parts, needs to function like a well-rehearsed orchestra. Every system must play its role properly, and at exactly the right time, or noise and chaos ensue. It is for this reason that routine is so necessary. The acts of life we repeat every day need to be automatized. They must be turned into stable and reliable habits, so they lose their complexity and gain predictability and simplicity. This can be perceived most clearly in the case of small children, who are delightful and comical and playful when their sleeping and eating schedules are stable, and horrible and whiny and nasty when they are not.
It is for such reasons that I always ask my clinical clients first about sleep. Do they wake up in the morning at approximately the time the typical person wakes up, and at the same time every day? If the answer is no, fixing that is the first thing I recommend. It doesn’t matter so much if they go to bed at the same time each evening, but waking up at a consistent hour is a necessity. Anxiety and depression cannot be easily treated if the sufferer has unpredictable daily routines. The systems that mediate negative emotion are tightly tied to the properly cyclical circadian rhythms. The next thing I ask about is breakfast. I counsel my clients to eat a fat and protein-heavy breakfast as soon as possible after they awaken (no simple carbohydrates, no sugars, as they are digested too rapidly, and produce a blood-sugar spike and rapid dip). This is because anxious and depressed people are already stressed, particularly if their lives have not been under control for a good while. Their bodies are therefore primed to hypersecrete insulin, if they engage in any complex or demanding activity. If they do so after fasting all night and before eating, the excess insulin in their bloodstream will mop up all their blood sugar. Then they become hypoglycemic and psycho-physiologically unstable. 22 All day. Their systems cannot be reset until after more sleep. I have had many clients whose anxiety was reduced to subclinical levels merely because they started to sleep on a predictable schedule and eat breakfast.”
– Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, Penguin Books

That last sentence is worth repeating, considering it comes from one of the worlds leading clinical psychologists and practising psychiatrists:

“I have had many clients whose anxiety was reduced to subclinical levels merely because they started to sleep on a predictable schedule and eat breakfast.”

Sleep and loneliness

Did you know there’s a link between loneliness and sleep patterns? Returning to Johann Hari’s brilliant book, Lost Connections, one of the connections we have lost is effective and meaningful social connections. He talks about how the Internet came along at a time when society was becoming increasingly fragmented, increasingly about the individual and with less community (i.e. after the 80s and for decades before that). So the Internet appeared to provide a solution, to help us become more connected again. Hari writes:

“As I researched this book, I kept coming across this apparent contradiction: I was traveling across the world learning about how we had become profoundly disconnected—and then I would open my laptop, to be shown that we are more connected now than we have ever been at any point in human history. A huge amount has been written about the way that our mental migration into cyberspace—our spending so much time online—is making us feel. But as I began to dig into this, I realized that we have been missing the most important point. The Internet arrived promising us connection at the very moment when all the wider forces of disconnection were reaching a crescendo.”

“Before the Internet addiction, they had felt lost and isolated in the world. Then the online world offered these young people things that they craved but that had vanished from the environment—such as a goal that matters to you, or a status, or a tribe. “

“The Internet was born into a world where many people had already lost their sense of connection to each other. The collapse had already been taking place for decades by then. The web arrived offering them a kind of parody of what they were losing—Facebook friends in place of neighbors, video games in place of meaningful work, status updates in place of status in the world. The comedian Marc Maron once wrote that “every status update is a just a variation on a single request: ‘Would someone please acknowledge me?’ ”

“After all his years studying loneliness, John Caccioppo told me the evidence is clear: social media can’t compensate us psychologically for what we have lost—social life. But more than that—our obsessive use of social media is an attempt to fill a hole, a great hollowing, that took place before anyone had a smartphone. It is—like much of our depression and anxiety—another symptom of our current crisis.”

– Hari, Johann. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, Bloomsbury Publishing

Back to the connection between loneliness and sleep… Hari also writes:

“There’s one neat way to test it <loneliness> . Anywhere in the world where people describe being lonely, they will also—throughout their sleep—experience more of something called “micro-awakenings.” These are small moments you won’t recall when you wake up, but in which you rise a little from your slumber. All other social animals do the same thing when they’re isolated too. The best theory is that you don’t feel safe going to sleep when you’re lonely, because early humans literally weren’t safe if they were sleeping apart from the tribe. You know nobody’s got your back—so your brain won’t let you go into full sleep mode. Measuring these “micro-awakenings” is a good way of measuring loneliness.

– Hari, Johann. Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, Bloomsbury Publishing

So if you feel in any sense lonely, by working on face-to-face social connections, a dominant happiness booster in it’s own right, you are likely to also improve the quality of your sleep. And the better you sleep, you are likely to have more energy for life and cultivating your social connections. So this is a potentially positive reinforcing loop.

Sleep as a Zoom-Out power tool

As mentioned in the opening to this article, proactively Zooming-Out and Zooming-In in a helpful way requires cognitive effort. This effort can vary a lot too depending on how challenging the situation is and how familiar a particular Zoom-Out or Zoom-In is to you. A good way to ensure you start the day stocked with a good supply of cognitive energy is to get a good nights sleep.

Sleep is also a powerful Zoom-Out tool as well. I often speak of Hot and Cold perspectives. Hot ones are those forged in the furnace of high emotion – often negative emotion. This is common in conflict situations for example. Literally “sleeping on it” to “cool off” is a great way to get a broader and more balanced perspective. Better decisions can be made before taking action, thus avoiding rash and unhelpful action that may make us feel good at that moment but in the bigger picture do ourselves and others more harm.


How long is a good nights sleep?

Short answer = 7 – 9 hours for an adult

The amount increases as you decrease the age. For teens it can be up to 10 hours and increases quite a lot as you go further back in age.

So it does vary with age and per individual. It makes sense to aim for the higher end of any estimate and if you wake up before, awake and refreshed then get up.

I hope you sleep well.

Further Reading: