Why humans deprive themselves of sleep

Sleep had always been different for every person. Most people believe it has to take up several hours to be considered rest, some would argue that a 10-minute power nap would suffice—it varies. But there’s one thing we can all agree on: whatever the true definition of sleep is, we aren’t getting enough of it.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, young adults age 18 to 25 should have at least a good seven to nine hours of sleep, or a minimum of six hours and not exceeding 11 to maximize the benefits of sleep. Anything in good moderation, as anyone would say, but it’s always easier said than done. There’s always work that needs to be accomplished, always more emails that need to be replied to, always more “tea” to spill and sip on social media—in short, there’s always something to keep our eyes open at the dead of the night. 

Human beings are the only species that deliberately deprive themselves of sleep for no apparent gain,” says British neuroscientist Matthew Walker. In his book Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams (2017), Walker tackles the many dangers of insufficient sleep: how it can lead to mental health problems, pose a greater risk for cancer and Alzheimer’s, and many more. He considered sleep as a vital part of people’s health, and how it still remains as a man-made problem. 

Here’s a fact: sometimes, it’s not really that we can’t sleep. We just won’t.

Sleep is for the weak

While nobody knows exactly when sleep deprivation had turned into a competition, we’ve all met that one person who can stay up past three and live to tell the tale. Some are known to even go days without sleeping a wink and word has it that they’ve transcended into a higher plane of existence (read: too sleepy to care). There’s a certain pride in knowing you burned the midnight oil while everyone is snoring away.

In the article How The World Forgot to Sleep, Joannas Fuertes makes use of prominent and illustrious figures from President Obama, Steve Jobs, and even Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter as practitioners of this behavior. She refers to the ‘rise-and-grind’ mentality as an “odd form of machismo,” which eventually translates into a “self-flagellatory lack of slumber.” The idea is that a person’s success are defined by the number of hours they are willing to work, and the more hours you put in, the better. True enough, except that people need to understand that there is a line between ‘putting in hours’ and ‘not having any time left to put in at all.’ There are 24 hours a day but just like our gadgets that we so love, people can only work for so long until our batteries run out.

Fuertes also questions the romanticized idea of sleep deprivation, and how late-night hedonism came to be known as “the magic source of creativity.” We’ve all seen those posts where brilliant ideas only seemed to manifest itself at night. As a result, people stay up all night in order to catch their muse, but with no such luck. Sleep is often treated as a sacrifice—a necessary loss in order to please the creativity gods—and we cling to our nightly rituals so much that 12 midnight has started to look like 5 PM in the evening, where night had only just begun.  

Fear of missing out 

“I don’t want to miss a thing.”

Performed by the famous rock band Aerosmith, the song hits a deeper meaning for the sleep-deprived: they don’t want to fall asleep, because they don’t want to miss a thing. Whether it’s a call from “babe”, latest announcements, or idle gossip—the fear of missing out (FOMO) lingers, and it’s there to stay.

You’ve probably dealt with FOMO at some point in your life. In her article published at Psychcentral, Linda Sapadin remarks that FOMO is especially strong for avid users of social media: in a place where everyone is tagged with everybody, and viral posts keep spreading around like wildfire. It’s normal to feel the pressure of keeping up, and make sure you’re there in case something goes down. As a result, you stay up all night to keep up with the latest updates, refreshing your news feed almost every minute to see if  you “missed something out.” 

That being said, Danielle Braff relates FOMO with sleep issues and stress, as shown in her compilation of FOMO-related studies and insights as published by the Chicago Tribune. She included a scientific explanation for FOMO and how FOMO affects every age group, and that our survival has always been based on “being included in group activities.” To make up for our shortcomings, we had to share resources with others, who in turn also benefits from us. 

Tess Brigham, therapist and life coach, explains how we used to live in tribes and needed them to protect us, and rejection from the tribe means death altogether. 

Ironically, in a world where everyone is more connected than ever, the need to keep up sets us apart from others, leading to a sense of disconnection that makes us feel that we are never really quite “there.” 

Braff added that “many people feel that they’re never doing enough in their work or personal lives.” In an attempt to reclaim their lives, some people use the night to do the things they can’t do at daytime, such as immerse themselves even more in social media. However, this only leads to more feelings of isolation, as we continue to live vicariously through each other’s lives.   

No rest for the wicked

At some point, we’re all going to talk about the things that keep us up at night—the demons on our back, the monsters under our beds, the skeletons in our closets. But until then, everyone deserves a good pat on the shoulder and a good night’s rest—wicked or not. What keeps you up may be the fact that you can’t sleep—but rather, the pressing feeling that  you shouldn’t.  

“Deep down, they say, we simply do not respect the need for human repose,” Zoë Heller stated, in a New Yorker article titled Why We Sleep, and Why Often We Can’t. “We remain convinced, in contradiction of all available evidence, that stinting on sleep makes us heroic and industrious, rather than stupid or fat.” 

The capitalist society has led to believe that sleep is a luxury only few people can afford, and if you sleep, it’s because you have the means to do so. How often is it that people treat sleep as a reward, instead of basic necessity? “I’ll sleep when I’m done” becomes both a truth and a lie, because either people sleep and leave their work unfinished, or finish their work and end up not sleeping at all.  

We treat ourselves like machines bound by code, programmed down to the specifics, and capable to work anytime at will. But one thing we have that machines don’t, is that we can dream. 

Sleep as a form of healing

Since most of us operate on a “work first, before sleep” mentality, why not try switching it up? You might find that a good night’s rest does more wonders than pulling an all-nighter, and we’re not just talking about the physical and mental aspects. To be able to rest is not a form of weakness, but rather, a form of strength that most people overlook, yet still badly need. 

Rachel Cooke, a writer for The Guardian, delves deeper into Walker’s research about sleep and its benefits, summarizing one of sleep’s most valuable gifts in a sentence: “When your mother told you that everything would look better in the morning, she was wise. […] If we sleep to remember, then we also sleep to forget.” 

She also explained how deep sleep, or Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, is a “therapeutic state during which cast off the emotional charge of our experiences, making them easier to bear.” This goes to prove that sleep can also be viewed as a form of “reset”, as the mind and body are given the chance to re-calibrate and recover from everyday activities. 


As many people view sleep as a sign of weakness, be the one who finds strength—just like how in the words of Oliver Goldsmith, “He who fights and runs away, live to fight another day.” To sleep is not to declare the world you’ve given up. That’s death. On the other hand, to tuck yourself in bed after a long day and feel  your body sink into your bed—that’s sleep. That’s telling the world, “I will rise again.”




Art by Alexandrea Rey

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