On Friday, the New York Times Magazine published an excellent piece by writer Eve Fairbanks called, “How Did Sleep Become So Nightmarish?” (It’s available online; go ahead, I’ll wait.) In it, she articulates many of the loose and often vaguely worrying notions about sleep that have been skittering around my own brain for a while now — often, ironically enough, when I’m trying to get some rest.
In her piece, Fairbanks considers how a “capitalization” of sleep has emerged from our work-culture’s obsession with productivity. She points out how, just a decade or so ago, we never would have thought to worry about how to set ourselves up to get the best sleep possible, in order to optimize our brains (and, by extension, ourselves) to wring the maximum productivity out of them the following day.
We slept because we were fucking tired.
Now, we’re tracing and tracking and extrapolating our sleep habits with apps and bracelets and journals and alarm clocks. We worry more about sleeping well than we do about just getting some goddamned shuteye, just checking out for a few hours and putting our minds in a completely different atmosphere — one that we know we need in order to remain healthy.
It’s gotten to the point that thinking about how to get a good night’s sleep is exhausting in and of itself, while simultaneously being enough to keep you awake at night.
I agree with Fairbanks on a more primal, or perhaps wonder-driven, level, as well: Sleep used to be an escape, a complete break with waking reality. Many of us never knew what we were going to dream about on any given night. Whatever your imagination was going to do to itself, whether venting the day’s psychic baggage or exploring a new anxiety or just having a good old-fashioned porn fantasy, it was taking you with it. You were taking that ride, and all you knew was that it was gonna be pretty unlike however you’d spent your day. You couldn’t make plans for sleeping; it was beyond your control.
That’s pretty freakin’ magical.
It’s also good for your gray matter, which leads me to wonder if all of these new ways to manage your sleeping patterns aren’t simply a growth market being exploited. It seems fairly self-evident to me: Your body lets you know when you need sleep, and you ignore it at your peril. Why would I want to start heading down a road that might just as well lead to insomnia and more worry as it might to a slightly more productive next day?
Maybe it’s a moot point. Maybe the magical part of resting is on its way out, the latest victim of our relentless quest to catalog, to quantify, to prepare us to be better workers, and little else. It might be true, because I’m pretty sure I know what I’ll dream of when I finally nod off tonight, wondering if I’m going to get enough healthy sleep.
I’m going to dream about fucking work.