Real Men Don’t Sleep
Sleep deprivation is the norm for adults in America. The CDC recommends a bare minimum of 7 hours, but the average adult in the U.S. gets less than that. And that’s not working out well because just under half of Americans report negative consequences resulting from their sleep loss. And it’s worse for men, because sleep deprivation is more common among men than women. Researchers at the University of Oregon believe that this is due to “The Sleep-Deprived Masculinity Stereotype,” which is also the name of their paper published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.
The study authors examined the idea that men don’t get enough sleep in part because of stereotypes about what it means to be a man. They found that getting less sleep is perceived as manly, as if real men don’t need sleep.
When I think of icons of masculinity, I think of characters like Arnold Schwarzenegger in one of his 1980s movies shouting something along the lines of “I am impervious to physical pain.” And I can just as easily imagine him saying, “Sleep is for the weak,” or “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
Yet science is unequivocal in the assessment that sleep makes you strong, and not sleeping is more likely to make you dead sooner. So when men, and particularly adolescents, are exposed to unrealistic male stereotypes that encourage sleep deprivation, they pay a price.
Sleep is the foundation of a happy healthy life.
As a doctor people ask me all the time what they can do to boost their immune system. Or how to feel better. Or how to be happier. Or how to help their children develop well or manage their emotions. Or how to have wellbeing. This is what I tell them: “It starts with sleep.” Sleep is foundational to our health, our happiness and our wellbeing.
When we get enough sleep, our mental and emotional health is better. We do better socially because we feel good and are more pleasant to be around. Our financial health has also been tied to a good night’s sleep. That makes sense, because we think more clearly when we are rested, leading to better job performance and probably better decisions about how we spend our money.
On the flip side, not getting enough sleep has a host of negative consequences. Sleep deprivation in university students has been associated with poor academic performance. And high school students who got seven hours of sleep had poorer school performance than those who got closer to the 9 hours recommended for adolescents.
Insufficient sleep also undermines our physical health. Long term, sleep loss leads to an increased risk of all the things your doctor looks for at your annual visits: high blood pressure, weight gain and obesity, diabetes, heart attack and stroke. The body does a lot of housekeeping while we sleep, and if it can’t do it, we eventually get sick.
Sleep is so fundamental that any measure to optimize performance at work or in education approaches futility unless participants are sleeping well.
I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
Study authors Nathan B. Warren and Troy H. Campbell wanted to see if there really is a “sleep-deprived masculinity stereotype.” To sort this out they ran a total of 12 experiments with 2564 participants from the U.S. One of the experiments asked participants to describe two characters, one a “very masculine and manly” man or a “not very masculine and not very manly” man. Those who described masculine men imagined their character getting an average of 33 minutes less sleep than those who described a “not very manly” man.
When participants were asked to imagine themselves stating they got more sleep than average, they reported feeling significantly less masculine than those who imagined themselves saying they got less sleep than average.
And in my favorite experiment, participants were asked to imagine watching a man shopping for a bed. In the scenario, the salesperson asks the shopper, “How much do you normally sleep?” The study participants rated the man shopping for a bed as more masculine if he slept less, and less masculine if he slept more.
“The social nature of the sleep-deprived masculinity stereotype positively reinforces males who sleep less, even though sleeping less contributes to significant mental and physical health problems,” the authors wrote. Guys want to be one of the guys, and that might mean sleeping less than they need. It’s not fair to them, and the study authors feel it may not be great for society either.
“Men who sleep less are found to be more aggressive and violent,” the authors wrote, “which can be harmful to men’s health and society at large.” Still, the authors see hope. “As society continues to challenge traditional definitions of masculinity, attitudes toward sleep may become more positive, and all people might enjoy more nights full of healthy sleep.”