In a Culture of Health, People Get the Sleep They Need

Aug 11, 2014, 9:52 AM, Posted by

How can we help people get more sleep?

I asked that question in a blog post back in February. Since then, I’ve been actively exploring the area of sleep health. I’ve talked with researchers, behavioral economists, physicians and mindfulness experts. I’ve talked with people who think they get enough sleep, and people who think they don’t. I’ve talked with anyone I can to discover what we need to know and do in order to help Americans sleep.

Sleep has tremendous ripple effects on our overall health and well-being. Lack of sleep affects your brain. There’s evidence that it affects your working memory. And as any new parent will confirm, we don’t need research to tell us that those who are sleep deprived are less able to control their tempers.

Sleep is important. Research shows that you think better, make better decisions, and recover from colds more quickly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention goes so far as to call insufficient sleep a public health epidemic.

And yet, for all the research that exists about the effects of insufficient sleep on health, and all the statistics indicating Americans aren’t getting enough sleep, I’ve discovered that there’s very little research into why. Why can’t more of us get the sleep we need?

Of course, theories about the causes of sleep deprivation abound: We’re stressed out, we’re glued to our devices until the wee hours, or we drank too much (or too little) red wine before bed. Organizations such as the National Sleep Foundation offer tips to fall asleep and stay asleep. But as far as I can tell, there’s no definitive understanding of why many Americans consistently get less than seven hours of sleep.

So I’d like to ask a new question: “Why aren’t Americans getting enough sleep in the first place?”

Are we choosing less sleep? (The coffee shop in the town near my office sells “sleep is for the weak” t-shirts.) Is our physical environment working at cross purposes to a good night’s sleep? Is our sleep health being sabotaged by choices and behaviors in ways we don’t fully understand—or even notice? (For insight into New Yorkers’ sleep habits, check out the very interesting Clock Your Sleep citizen science project from WNYC). Do Americans not know—or not believe—or not care—that good sleep is essential to good health?

We need to understand the full spectrum of reasons for Americans’ sleep deprivation if we are going to imagine and design truly innovative, effective interventions to support better sleep.

Those interventions may be high-tech, such as f.lux, a program that prompts your computer screen to get dimmer as night falls—the idea being that exposure to light sources might overstimulate us and keep us awake past the point of fatigue; or they may be as simple as writing down what’s bothering you on a piece of paper as a way of releasing the anxiety of the day.

For many people, the necessary interventions will almost certainly require resetting cultural norms around work/life balance—when office workers brag about how well rested they are instead of how effectively they can run on fumes, we’ll know we’re making progress.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Before we can effectively solve the problem, we need to understand it better.

Here’s where you come in. If you’re a researcher working on this issue, or know of someone with whom I should connect, I’d love to hear from you. If you have a theory or story about why people get or don’t get enough sleep, share that, too.

And if you are a champion sleeper, what are the secrets of your success? We need to understand how good sleep health works, too!

Email me at

You can also follow me on Twitter at @lorimelichar, where I’d love to exchange the latest news and ideas about sleep health.

RWJF’s vision to build a Culture of Health in this country that makes it easy for Americans to be healthy wherever we live, work, learn and play can’t be achieved if we’re bleary-eyed and running on empty. In a Culture of Health, people get the sleep they need.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Listen now: In the latest episode of RWJF’s Pioneering Ideas podcast I talk with Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan, author of Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much, about the ripple effect of sleep on our mental and physical wellbeing—and why this serious health issue doesn’t get more attention.