Who Are These ‘Average Americans,’ And How Are They Getting Nine Hours Of Sleep A Night?
Yesterday, James Joyner wrote about a study detailing the reasons why Americans aren’t getting enough sleep, many of which sadly apply in my own life on a far too regular basis. On the other side of the coin, though, Wonkblog’s Christopher Ingraham makes note of recent studies showing that the average American gets nine hours of sleep a night:
How many hours did you sleep last night? If you are a basic American, like me, bASEDyou will probably grumble and mutter something disparaging about your kids before settling on a number somewhere in the 6-7ish hour range. In 2013, for instance, a Gallup poll reported that the average American slept 6.8 hours per night, with only a third hitting that golden 8+ hour figure.
But today the Bureau of Labor Statistics released their annual Time Use Survey, and it tells a different story. Among 11,000 Americans aged 15 and up, the average daily sleep total clocked in at 8 hours and 45 minutes, nearly two full hours higher than Gallup’s number.
And while it’s true that some groups get more sleep than others (looking at you, teenagers and old folks), that figure remains remarkably consistent across a variety of demographic categories. The only substantial difference is among the unemployed, who sleep for an hour longer than their employed counterparts. But no subgroup gets fewer than eight hours of sleep per night, according to the BLS, not even people with small kids. So what gives?
This chart shows the alleged consistency across demographic groups:
Based on that Gallup poll that Ingraham cites and other studies, along with anecdotal evidence, this results seem to come across as a surprising. The media, after all, is filled with stories about how Americans of all ages don’t get enough sleep. School systems have begun reconsidering their schedules due to the fact that early wake up times are meaning that teenagers are going to bed late and waking up early, and often end up falling asleep in class. And there are frequent reports of car accidents that are caused by people who are obviously fatigued, such as the recent accident on the New Jersey Turnpike that injured comedian Tracey Morgan, which was apparently caused by a truck driver who hadn’t slept in at least 24 hours prior to the accident. Given all of that and, well, the fact that so many of us feel tired all the time, the obvious question is, what gives?
As Ingraham notes, it may have something to do with how the survey was conducted:
To arrive at their sleep estimates, the BLS asks respondents what time they go to bed at night, and what time they get out of bed in the morning. But people do any number of, ahem, “non-sleep activities” in bed before they actually fall asleep at night, or after they wake up. These activities, which include things like personal grooming and reading in bed, are not reported separately in the BLS survey. “We may be capturing some of those activities right before they fall asleep,” Denton told me.
Another crucial caveat is that the BLS sleep estimates also include time spent napping. “If people report sleeping in the middle of the day, that would include average sleep,” Denton said.
Another difference between the BLS and Gallup numbers is how the question is asked. Gallup asks respondents to estimate how much sleep they get on average: “Usually, how many hours sleep do you get at night?” But the BLS survey asks people exactly when they were in bed on the previous day.
So which number is more accurate? On the one hand, you can see how asking people the specifics of their sleep habits may yield more accurate responses than general estimates. Americans tend to see busyness and perpetual fatigue as virtues, and we may exaggerate our sleeplessness for interviewers as a result.
Given that they’re both self-reporting, I’m not sure that either the Gallup or BLS studies can be said to be entirely accurate. In both cases, respondents are likely over-estimating the among of sleep that they get on a nightly basis, with the Gallup respondents straight-up just putting out an hourly number and BLS respondents counting as “sleep time” things that don’t necessarily count as sleep, such as staying up for an hour answering text messages, which doesn’t really count as sleep even if you’re doing it in bed.
Of the two, though, I’ve got to say that the BLS figure is the one that I find hard to believe, although it is based largely on anecdotal evidence. Since I’m usually awake no later than 5:00 in the morning no matter what time I may have fallen asleep, getting nine hours of sleep a night would mean going to sleep sometime around 8:30 the previous night. Now I’m not going to say I haven’t done that on occasion on night’s when I’m particularly exhausted, I also can’t say that it’s a common occurrence either. It’s more likely that I’ll be calling it a night around 10pm, which may mean I don’t actually fall asleep for another half hour or more. That adds up to maybe six or six and a half hours of sleep, which usually seems to be good enough on most days. Nine hours of sleep? That doesn’t happen unless I’m asleep far earlier than usual, or if its a weekend and I somehow have convinced my subconscious not to wake up at time not fit for man or beast. But those nights are out of the ordinary, and I am guessing that my experiences are not atypical.
So, if this BLS study is accurate, then there must be a lot of people out there getting a lot of sleep to bring that national average up to nine hours a night