Sleep better, help the economy


The New York Times recently tackled the tricky subject of Americans’ lack of sleep and its impact on the gross domestic product (GDP). It’s tricky because, as author Sendhil Mullainathan, a professor of economics at Harvard University, pointed out, few economists have made the connection—and, it seems, few care to.


“Ask why one person had an unproductive day at work, and lack of sleep often seems an obvious answer,” he wrote. “But ask why national productivity has fallen, and reduced sleep can appear to be a frivolous answer. Yet what is total output but the sum of all individuals’ work?”


Mullainathan pointed to a few studies that connect sleep deprivation to a loss in productivity, such as one in Australia that calculated the cost of sleeplessness at 0.8 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.


“Yet even that number, which emphasizes the physical and medical consequences of inadequate sleep, omits the biggest potential impact on the GDP,” he noted. “Most of today’s workers rely on their mental and social skills. And if those workers don’t get enough sleep, their lethargy, crankiness and poor decision-making will hurt the economy in assorted and significant ways.”


He posited that technology is largely to blame in our rise to sleeplessness. Although some issues do exist—medical conditions such as insomnia, for one—Mullainathan noted that “for many of us, the quantity and quality of sleep come down to a matter of choice.” That, he said, is what should be studied: Why are we intentionally depriving ourselves of a good night’s sleep?


“Before the dawn of the web, I would stay up watching television. But there is something soporific about television: I would often nod off. Not so when I’m online,” he wrote. “As technologies expand, these problems may only worsen.”


His message: Take back the night, and use it to get a good night’s sleep. “It’s not too late to add a resolution for this still-young year: to partake more in what Shakespeare called the ‘chief nourisher in life’s feast,’” Mullainathan noted. “A good night’s sleep has immediate effects on our productivity, and, best of all, it can even help us keep our other resolutions.”

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