Why Young Indians Continue to Sacrifice Sleep
It’s 13 minutes past 1 a.m. Sara* lets out a yawn, her hands busy clacking on the keyboard. A message from her mother lights up her screen: Keep up the hard work. Eat sthg. This, coupled with three emoticons – a clock, a nightscape with stars, a red barrel. Read together, they were meant to signify: Keep burning the midnight oil. A life lesson handed down generations, like an old piece of jewelry or a trinket box.
And thus Sara remains part of a flock of young Indians carrying forward a cultural disregard for sleep. This is despite study after study telling us about the benefits of good rest; sleep can make us less stressed, less depressed, more fulfilled, and more productive. However, discomforting evidence shows that people the world over are barely getting enough rest, undergoing a sleep epidemic.
Different moments in time, influenced by industrial revolutions and technology, decided how society engaged with ideas of personhood, work, and labor. Eventually, societal sleep habits changed for the worse. Sleeping meant an absence of work, which implied an absence of value and utility in society, and people began shaming those who overslept. To sleep was thus to be lazy.
Moreover, since capitalism dictates that any activity must be a productive activity, sacrificing sleep was (mistakenly) associated with the appealing sheen of hard work. Moments of wakefulness came to be confused with absolute utility. Today, there is a lot more keeping us awake: Netflix releases, artificial lights, the stress of tomorrow, a future in jeopardy, the climate crisis.
Especially inside Indian households, sleep is spoken of as an antithesis to success and self-worth.
Indian families are governed by the law of constant motion; there is no room for gap years or “finding time for oneself.” Yahi toh umar hain mehnat karne ki (This is the age for working hard), the diktat from parents and family goes.
“This is what has been taught to us since the beginning, since you were a child,” says Nidhi Thakore, a clinical psychologist. “[T]o such an extent that we feel guilty to take a break, we feel guilty to take time off, about sleeping on time. We are conditioned to believe that if you snooze, you lose.”
The lack of sleep ties neatly with the Indian myth of hard work: that people can choose to be successful, if only they suffer sufficiently for it. It is the same reasoning that leads people to normalize poverty and be critical of welfare schemes; people are poor and disadvantaged because they don’t work hard enough.
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But this line of thinking is flawed, privileged, and inherently casteist in its framing. Society is structured on the unequal inheritance of wealth, opportunities, and resources; these are all variables of social capital that determine whose hard work pays off and whose doesn’t. “[T]he marginalized are convinced their failure is a result of their own insufficiency and not an oppressive system,” as Bijaya Biswal noted in The Swaddle. It is much easier to attribute success to slogging and lack of sleep, than to sincerely account for privilege and access to resources needed for financial security. “We as a culture try hard to hide other factors that go into success, like privilege and caste,” argues Arnav*, a writer. The conversation around sleep, then, is situated in the wider narratives around productivity and success: of hard work and “merit” that allow inequity to play out.
If to sleep is to laze around, and to be lazy is the utmost deterrent to success, then desiring rest is intuitively associated with laziness and wrongness. It normalizes the sense of guilt that comes with, say, sleeping for more than five hours. A*, 29, recalls long, arduous nights studying for the class 12th board examinations, the bogeyman of every 17-year-old. Her mother’s care and worry translated as preparing late-night snacks or bringing coffee, any way to help her push through the night – instead of encouraging more sustainable, even compassionate study plans that slotted in time for rest.
The marriage of societal conditioning and hustle culture also means overworking is rewarded, glorified, and glamorized. Arnav says the myth of hard work has “reached an extent where we are competitive about how little we sleep.”
“But there’s nothing glamorous about it, you end up waking up with big dark circles, your health is poor, and your focus is not there. You don’t just don’t deprive yourself of energy, but also you’re not allowing yourself the chance to rest and rejuvenate,” says Nidhi.
“The percentage of individuals going through this is alarming – it’s at an all-time high.”Nidhi Thakore, clinical psychologist
According to a 2019 survey, almost 45% of Indians say that their work hours determine when they sleep and for how long; compare this with 27% in Japan. “We are ‘The Great Unslept.’ We can survive longer without food and water than we can without sleep, yet we compromise on it,” said Dr. Zarir F. Udwadia, consultant chest physician at Mumbai’s Hinduja Hospital, commenting on the findings of the survey.
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Part of our worship of sleep deprivation can also be attributed to India’s collectivist culture, where the focus is rarely ever on the individual. Anything that is focused on the “self” and doesn’t directly benefit the collective is viewed as an indulgent act. “A lot of us don’t realize the value of rest,” says Nidhi. Sleeping is solitary and of the individual, and thus, it is indulgent and frivolous. Emotional and mental well-being are trivial inconveniences; it is only when someone visibly shows signs of weakness, say fainting, is when rest is factored into the equation. Rest in India is also intrinsically tied to the availability of space and money, making sleep further feel like a luxury instead of a necessity.
People’s decision to stay up late or deprioritize sleep could also stem from a lack of privacy in Indian households. “Late night becomes the only time most people get to just exist and be themselves,” says P*, 23. The Swaddle wrote earlier about the way personal space is seen as an extravagance “morally good” people don’t need.
This has led to the rise of “revenge bedtime procrastination,” an internet concept that explains why people choose the life of late-night owls over early birds, for it allows them a semblance of their “own time.” “When I de-prioritize sleep,” says D* 28, “I do so in a way to have a delusional free will, like I’m in control. I can watch a TV show, doom-scroll, do anything, and I do not have to be answerable to anyone.” We understand sleep in the language of choice and leisure, and not as a remedy to recover from and respond to existing power relations. So ingrained are these ideas that as a culture, we are unable to separate meaningful rest from “wakefulness.” In this context, it is impossible to see sleep as a form of liberation that holds promise for our individual selves.
Our dismissal of sleep is both staggering and extraordinary, for it boldly persists as a measure of one’s character, despite all evidence pointing to the perils of sleep deprivation. These are habits that aren’t rooted in science, but shaped by unique cultural forces that dictate how young Indians live, breathe, and work. For a culture that doesn’t understand leisure or rest, and even harbors a distaste for it, reframing sleep as a social necessity can then be a radical imagination of our role in society.
In June last year, there was a stir among Chinese millennials and Gen Z; the memo was to do as little as possible. The “Lying Down Movement” involved people lying down and doing the bare minimum necessary, instead of striving to be as productive as possible.
As one member of this movement explained, “Lying flat is a state of mind – that is, I feel that many things are not worthy of my attention and energy.” To simply lie down was, thus, an act of resistance.
To critique our ideas about sleep is the first step to liberating ourselves from the shame of doing “nothing” and recovering from unending cycles of exhaustion. Researchers have also written abundantly about the incredible ways rest and recovery can cultivate ecosystems of compassion; rejuvenated people can further challenge social injustices and inequalities. “Sleep seems to remove us from the general tyranny of the advancing clock… In sleep, our brains decide what to keep and discard. Without sleep, we would dissolve into overloaded confusion,” as Siobhan Phillips wrote on the politics of sleep. Only when one lays claim to meaningful rest can they truly ever critique themselves, and the world around. The truth was right there: slumber was activism too.
This is not just a plea for people to sleep more. Instead, this is an attempt to deconstruct the extraordinary ways we’ve been conditioned to devalue the one thing that sustains us the most. Perhaps our lives could do with some R&R on our ideas of rest and recuperation – it’s time to rethink, and reorient.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.