Updated: Jun 29
One of the factors that Johann Hari identifies in his excellent book Stolen Focus is the crippling exhaustion that most humans in the ‘developed’ world seem to suffer from. And how, critically, this erodes our ability to think and feel in the deep and sustained way we are aiming for in Victory Mind.
I have a great number of students and therapy clients who are unable to sleep and confess that they have been managing, for decades, on a few hours of broken sleep a night.
I won't go into the devastation this wreaks on our brains and bodies. (Matthew Walker's book Why We Sleep will do the job of scaring you into sleeping better.) But if you're NOT sleeping 8 solid hours a night, then your brain is functioning pretty much the same as if you'd been drinking or smoking reefer. *
According to Hari, only 15% of the British population wake up from a night’s sleep, feeling refreshed. An incredible, 23% of us are getting less than five hours a night. This means almost a quarter of Britons should definitely not be driving, working or operating heavy machinery, let alone carrying out brain surgery, teaching our children or deciding government policy.
But this is not going to be a blog about how to fix your sleep.
We are constantly being offered “fixes” or “life hacks” for problems that actually require more radical changes. (And the people encouraging us to ‘fix’ ourselves are often the people most disinclined to take those radical steps).
So, for example, companies that expect their workers (by subtle or not-so-subtle cues) to work 50+ hours a week, then offer them free mindfulness classes. “Work inhuman hours”, they seem to say, “But please be mindful and more alert while doing so”. And this passes as care. But it’s not care. It’s putting lipstick on a pig, as the Tibetans say. A cosmetic adjustment that does not improve but rather makes everything feel more monstrous.
Now if you were my sleepless client, I might tell you to:
turn off all your devices before going to bed.
not have any blue light in your bedroom.
avoid caffeine at all costs (it doesn’t wake you up, it just masks your tiredness).
take magnesium tablets before sleeping.
And all of those things might make a difference. But these are not the root cause of most people’s sleeplessness.
The root cause of most people’s sleeplessness is overwork, overthinking and an inability to ‘switch off’.
And we are told that these are our ‘problems’. That “you’re a worrier”. Or that “you think too much”. Or you need to find a better work-life balance. But once again this is ‘cruel optimism’. It is shifting the spotlight from the real culprit to the victims.
The real culprit is the endless demand for more.
More hours, more products, more solutions, more fun, more shopping, more caring, more love, more adventure.
Until we tackle this excessive activation of our dissatisfaction glands and the near-extinction of our satisfaction systems, then we will never sleep. Of course we won’t. Why would an animal who believes that they are on the edge of “Not Enough” sleep?
As the philosopher Matthew Crawford points out:
If consumer capitalism can only go on by continuing to accelerate the "intensification of nervous stimulation", there would seem to be a fundamental antagonism between this form of economic life, and the individual, who inhabits it.
We live in a system where the overstimulation of our nervous systems by advertising, by job insecurity, by the gig economy, or by 'keeping up with the Jones' leaves us shivering wrecks by 8 o’clock at night, fit only for a few hours of Netflix and a sleeping tablet. It’s not our fault that we can’t sleep. Sleeplessness is actually a functional cog in the system we live in.
Because if we weren’t so sleep-addled we might believe we were enough.
And we might be satisfied by simple things. If we did that then we would absolutely sleep better - but, in the same moment, consumer capitalism economics would grind to a halt.
As I say over and over in this series of blogs, what we need here is deep, joined-up thinking. Not the victim-blaming of individuals who can’t sleep but an examination of the system we live in and how that forces us not to sleep.
Since the 1500s and the removal of the Commons in the UK, folk who previously were able to sustain themselves from common land were suddenly forced to rent land (that had been spuriously ‘enclosed’ i.e. stolen) or work for others to feed themselves and their family.
This imperative of work went into overdrive in the Industrial Revolution.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, workers who had been artificially made to starve were forced to work inhuman hours to survive. The more hours they worked, the more they increased the efficiency of factories which worked day and night to create surplus profit for the owners. But this “work ethic” was anything but ethical since the inhuman amounts of spirit-crushing work carried out by millions of men, women and (shamefully) children was entirely unnecessary since the excess of money made was much more than the factory owners could ever spend. Its only use was to build more factories, employ more people and thus proliferate the whole avaricious machine.
I have just been reading ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ by Dickens, where Little Nell and her grandfather spend three hellish days crossing an unnamed (but presumably Mancunian) industrial city. There is a hard-to-read episode where a man who was born in an iron foundry and who took over from his father who died in the iron foundry, spends his days checking the blast furnace. He has convinced himself that he is speaking to the fire and that the furnace is speaking back to him, but as readers, we see how hollowed out his existence has become. Ironically, he allows Nell and the old man to sleep on the piles of ashes by his workplace, but he himself never sleeps but stays up all night, unmoving, staring into the blast.
Spin forward a hundred and fifty years and we are still staring, sleepness at the blast furnace.
It’s the same pig but with different lipstick of course. Now our furnaces are screens. Now we sacrifice sleep for productivity, for entrepreneurship, for innovation, for start-ups, for working-from-home, for flexible hours etc. But the imperative is the same. We must never be satisfied and we must work more.
Even people, lucky enough to have retired, suffer from this same dilemma. “How did we ever have time to work”, they say. “I’m busier now than when I was working 9-5”.
When I was living in London I suffered a catastrophic collapse in my sleeping.
Until I was 40 I had slept (like my father) like a log. Instant and deathlike sleep. But a critical mass of stress, overwork, insecurity and emotional backdraft suddenly burned through that ability to sleep like tinder.
All at once, I was waking in a panic in the middle of the night, bolt upright, adrenalised, tortured by a ringing white noise through my whole body.
I convinced myself that it was organic. That I was allergic to something. That there were too many Wifi waves in the house. That my thyroid was wonky.
And yes, of course, it is the body that wakes up in a panic. It is the body that sleeps or doesn’t sleep but I was wrong. It was not - at root- organic. My body was simply registering the endemic stress of my life and my life was in turn being chewed up by the endemic stress of London.
I would like to say that I meditated my way back to full sleep but it’s not true. It took ten years for my system to finally unwind and allow me to sleep well again. Ten years of therapy, deep thought, a move out of the city, and latterly, to a completely off-grid location.
And I know that not everyone can do that but the fact remains that, for me, it was the “intensification of nervous stimulation” that underpins consumer lifestyles that reduced my sleep to cinders.
It wasn't a personal failing that I couldn't sleep, but it was a personal response to the world and the world's expectations.
So how do we change that? Many of us can’t give up our jobs. Can’t move to the country. Can’t unplug totally.
But in lieu of waving any magic wand, we can cast a curious eye on the underpinnings of our sleeplessness. Perhaps we can unplug as much as we can. Perhaps we can ponder more deeply our relationship to work (or - if we’ve retired - to the relics of that weird ‘work ethic’).
Because, ultimately, the antidote to consumer society is satisfaction.
It's the ability to say: “This is enough”. And contrary to the consumer myth - “enough” doesn’t have to cost a penny. This walk, this blue sky, the sandwich your neighbour made for you. We can slowly saturate ourselves in moments of enoughness. Over and over again. Until it soaks in and we can casually say: "Yes, mostly, I’m enough."
Or to frame it in a more intoxicating way:
To sleep better, we need to practice being more idle.
We need to see how it feels to drink from the intoxicating brew of purposeless indolence, dandified dawdling and non-productive daydreaming. (Even for just a few hours a week.)
Full disclosure, all these things feel like kryptonite to me. I find it almost excruciating to do nothing. To laze. To be actually, objectively lazy, To not have a goal. To really do nothing.
“What a waste,” I hear my inner Gradgrind* shriek. “When people are starving! to sit there watching the daisies move in the wind? Pure indolence!”
But the myth that poor people are unhappy is a part of Gradgrind’s game. Not working. Being satisfied with a little. Hanging out with friends. These are actually blessings. This is what rich people aspire to.
So rather than pathologizing my lack of sleep (read: lack of productivity) and sending myself into an anxiety spiral that is deeply (physically and spiritually) corrosive, I am now trying to really investigate that aversion to doing nothing and unpick the threads of ‘not-enough-ness’ that undergird my sleeplessness.
I intuit that it’s only through sitting with this underlying restlessness that is ‘bred in the bone’ by the society I grew up in, that I can finally lie down and sleep the sleep of the blessed. (Which is, of course, the sleep of the free.)
*"Routinely sleeping less than 6 or 7 hours a night demolishes your immune system, almost doubling your risk of cancer. Insufficient sleep is a key lifestyle factor in determining whether or not you will develop Alzheimer's disease. Inadequate sleep - even moderate reductions for a week - disrupts blood sugar levels so profoundly you would be categorised as pre-diabetic" (Walker p. 11)
One of the things that happens is that during sleep, your brain cleans itself of waste that has accumulated during the day. During slow-wave sleep, your cerebral spinal fluid channels open up more and remove metabolic waste from your brain. No slow-wave sleep, no cleaning.
Dr Maiken Nedergaard:
"You can think of it as like having a house party. You can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can't really do both at the same time."
[ quoted in Hari Stolen Focus p 67]
* Another Dickensian character, the ruthlessly efficient school board superintendent in Hard Times.