The Sleep Incentive

We thought we’d get a rest from the election once the voting was over. We were wrong, of course.

These post-election days (there should be a word for it, like postbellum… maybe that is the word) are as full of presidential chatter as the day before the election. The noisiest transition ever. Street protests, a cyberhate uptick, endless post-mortems on how it happened and prognostications about the unpredictable. Such is our lot.

Weary of it as we are, one curious fact that has caught our attention since November 8, and that has escaped the pundits, is that the president-elect does not seem to be taking a rest. As Trump once told a New York City tabloid, he credits his success to sleeping only three to four hours a night. “How does somebody that’s sleeping 12 and 14 hours a day compete with someone that’s sleeping three or four?” he asked.

It’s hard to argue with success (would have been easier if she had won). But the correlation between sleep and success has been a subject over which a number of researchers have lost sleep in recent years.

A new study from Williams College and the University of California-San Diego indicates that the reality may be just the opposite: The researchers calculate that a one-hour increase in weekly sleep raises wages by about half as much as an additional year of education.

Incredibly, the data shows, they say, that the influence of sleep on income is such that one’s location within a time zone can make a difference. For example, the sun sets about an hour and a half earlier in Mars Hill, Maine, than in Ontonagon, Michigan, even though both are in the Eastern time zone. Since, as past research shows, people sleep longer when the sun sets earlier, the folks in Maine will sleep more and earn more than their same-zone buddies in Michigan.

How much more? They find that a one-hour increase in average weekly sleep in a location increases wages by 1.3 percent in the short run (less than a year) and by five percent in the long run. By moving to a location where sunset is one hour earlier, a person will make an additional $1,570 a year.

Before you adopt the motto of “Sleep more, earn more,” it must be noted that prior research has yielded conflicting results.

A study by the National Institutes of Health found that people earning less than the federal poverty level were the most likely of any group to say they slept less than six hours. The researchers could not say for sure what the reason was for sleep inequality, but worrying about money can certainly keep you up nights.

On the other hand, a University of Texas at Austin study concluded that the more affluent slept more (though not necessarily better). There, the theory was that the more you can earn, the more worthwhile it may seem to sacrifice sleep for work. (The divergent results were attributed to different methodologies.)

Surveying the sleeping habits of the rich and famous may also get you nowhere. Churchill, for example, slept about five hours, largely in the daytime, and kept his staff and colleagues up most of the night working. Margaret Thatcher did rather well on four hours. But President Barack Obama says he must have six. Entrepreneurs Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos both need seven hours a night. Evidently, one can need a normal person’s amount of rest and still earn an abnormal amount of money.

Apart from any cost-benefit analysis, some people simply must have eight hours of sleep a night lest they be zombies during the day, while others are happily jetting about on four. It’s a matter of individual metabolism that cuts across socioeconomic strata.

There are obviously other factors that contribute to income levels. A high school dropout who has no interest in getting a job cannot expect to magically take home money by adding an hour of sleep on Monday mornings. But all things considered, if one stops cheating oneself out of the hours he really needs to function optimally, his prospects for higher earnings will likely rise. That is something worth thinking about.