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This week we revisit our science-backed tips for a good night’s sleep with sleep scientist Eti Ben Simon and host of the Sleep with Me podcast Drew Ackerman.
A good night’s sleep can be hard to come by, and beating yourself up over not sleeping enough will only make it worse. On this episode of The Science of Happiness, the host of Sleep With Me podcast Drew Ackerman joins us to try science-backed tips for finding your natural sleep rhythm. Drew, also known as “Dearest Scooter,” talks about his history with insomnia and sleep anxiety, sleep hygiene, and his philosophy on bringing more self-compassion into his approach to trying to fall asleep. Then we hear from sleep scientist Eti Ben Simon about how sleep affects your social life.
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine after 2 p.m. to unmask your true biological sleep needs.
- Keep lights dim in the evening and limit access to LED lights after 9 p.m.
- Go to sleep as soon as you feel tired (even if you’re in the middle of something). This will help you figure out the earliest window it is physiologically possible for you to fall asleep.
- Do not use an alarm clock to wake up.
Drew Ackerman is the host of one of the most listened-to sleep podcasts, Sleep with Me.
Listen to Sleep With Me Podcast: https://pod.link/sleep-with-me
Follow Drew on Twitter: https://tinyurl.com/2p8nrhnp
Follow Drew on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/dearestscooter/
Follow Drew on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Sleepwithmepodcast/
Eti Ben Simon is a sleep scientist and postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley, where she works at Matthew Walkers’ Center for Human Sleep Science.
Learn more about Eti and her work: https://www.sleepingeti.com/
Follow Eti on Twitter: https://twitter.com/etoosh
Follow Eti on Google Scholar: https://tinyurl.com/328aa5yr
Resources from The Greater Good Science Center:
Four Surprising Ways to Get a Better Night’s Sleep: https://tinyurl.com/2p832bh5
How Mindfulness Improves Sleep: https://tinyurl.com/2p8rhkhj
Your Sleep Tonight Changes How You React to Stress Tomorrow: https://tinyurl.com/2p8zvbjz
More Resources for A Good Night’s Sleep:
Matthew Walker’s 11 Tips for Improving Sleep Quality: https://tinyurl.com/2kadu7va
TED - Sleeping with Science: https://tinyurl.com/23mmbdy3
Harvard Health - 8 Tips to Get a Good Night’s Sleep: https://tinyurl.com/2p8um9z7
BBC - Why Do We Sleep? https://tinyurl.com/2p8z9v2d
Tell us about your experiences and struggles with falling asleep. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the hashtag #happinesspod.
Help us share The Science of Happiness!
Rate us on Spotify and share this link with someone who might like the show: https://tinyurl.com/6s39rzus
Drew Ackerman: As a kid, I had a lot of anxiety about school. And every night I would stay up kind of worrying about what was going to go wrong the next day, was it going to get in trouble and almost trying to play out the day and predict what was going to happen and plan everything out. And, and then it got to the point where I was like, wait a second, I can’t sleep. Or like, I’m so nervous. And then I got it in my head, it’s like, how am I going to fall asleep now? Now I’m tired, how am I going to get to sleep? And it was this cycle that just went on and on and on. And one of the things that I think about even now, is I’m the oldest of six kids, but how lonely it was. I share a room with my brother, but he’s sound asleep and I’m tossing and turning. And then the idea of, like, just like water, food, we need sleep, but it’s not something that’s that we can just turn on and off or just to get, you know. And then the more you try to get it, the harder you try to reach for the worse it gets.
My parents, I’d tell them I couldn’t sleep and they’re like, “Why don’t you think of something nice? Why don’t you, you know, imagine yourself descending a staircase?” And some stuff would work for one night, but then it wouldn’t work the next night and the anxiety would come back.
Dacher Keltner: Welcome to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner.
You know, all the happiness practices we cover on this show, about calming ourselves down, connecting with others, finding our sense of purpose, they all work best, when we’ve had a good night’s sleep. Sleep is fundamental to our well-being, and when we lack it, we suffer from things like kidney disease and diabetes, depression and brain fog, and even difficulty reading other people’s emotions.
Yet 1 in 3 people in the U.S. don’t get enough sleep or rest.
So Today we’re revisiting our episode about the science of sleep: Why it matters, and how to get more of it.
We follow Drew Ackerman — aka Scooter, the host of the Sleep With Me Podcast — as he tries out science-backed tips to get better sleep.
Later, our podcast’s executive producer Shuka talks with sleep scientist Eti Ben Simon to learn more about how sleep can profoundly impact our social lives.
Eti Ben Simon: So imagine you have an alarm network at your house and it would tell you whenever someone gets to the door, when you’re sleep deprived, it would warn you when someone’s already across the street.
Dacher Keltner: More after this break.
Dacher Keltner: I’m Dacher Keltner, welcome back to The Science of Happiness. Sleep loss affects every system in our brain and in our body. And when we look at thousands of studies across years, we see that people who sleep less than 6 hours a night are at greater risk for heart attacks and strokes, have impaired immunity and are more likely to have type two diabetes, and also down the line, dementia. We really need sleep to reset and fine tune.
Drew Ackerman, today’s guest, had pretty bad insomnia as a kid, and he still struggles with it as an adult. So about a decade ago he started to record meandering bedtime stories to help lull others to sleep. It’s now a weekly podcast called, Sleep With Me.
Drew, welcome to The Science of Happiness.
Drew Ackerman: Thanks so much for having me on. I’m excited to talk about sleep and sleep practice.
Dacher Keltner: You know people like Matt Walker, a neuroscientist who runs the sleep lab here at UC Berkeley, have been starting to build out these approaches to sleep. And we shared some of them with you to try out. And I have the list over here.
Get at least 30 minutes of outdoor sun a day; go to bed when you’re tired; don’t drink caffeine or alcohol at night; and hard one—no screens. And keep a worry journal which is common wisdom, like get your rumination stuff into a place and then you can go to sleep.
And being our soporific hero out there, you recorded your sleep journey for us. How did you approach this sleep wisdom?
Drew Ackerman: So I definitely tried some of the practices and the Worry Journal was the one that really drew me in because I had I think I had heard about that. But it’s something I never tried. I tried it out over the past week in doing it a few hours before bed with the idea of kind of capturing it or releasing it was powerful because it’s like this week, particularly, my parents are coming to stay with me and over and over again I was like I’m never —
Let’s see. What am I worried about?
I am worried that I may get my apartment clean from when my parents are here.
I have no idea what time I’m going to get to bed, So I’m already worried about that. I’m a little bit worried if I’m going to fall asleep tonight. Normally, almost every night, I’m worried if I’m going to fall asleep.
Dacher Keltner: We’re all over-stressed and worried right now, and if you can just name it, put it into some words, vocal or writing, there’s just something that happens that’s magical about that. How long did you do it for? The worry journal?
Drew Ackerman Just a few minutes. Just like with the top things that were at top of my mind worrying me. So just a couple of minutes.
Dacher Keltner: How did it affect your sleep? Like what did you notice about your mental state when you went to sleep? That was different.
Drew Ackerman I think it was a little bit more relaxed and it made it easier for me to go from like, my wind down routine, which was like I just usually read fiction to to falling asleep, like when I was tired. It’s like, okay, I’m done, I’m feeling tired. I’m just going to close my book and go to sleep. I think also doing it a few hours before bed did give myself or my subconscious or whatever is a little bit time to process it and be like, “Hey, it’s going to be okay.” Like, “This isn’t that big a deal.” Like “You’ll get the apartment clean,” so that those kinds of natural organic tools were able to be in place before I tried to go to sleep and again try to process it and be like, Oh no, what am I going to do now I better start planning. Just like when I was a kid. What do I have to do tomorrow to be perfect or whatever it is.
Dacher Keltner: That’s profound. What other practices did you try and what didn’t quite line up or work for you?
Drew Ackerman I mean, I definitely, like a lot of people, that may be listening, found it challenging to avoid my phone totally, but I did my best.
Dacher Keltner Now wait, back up. So what do you usually do with your phone before you go to sleep?
Drew Ackerman Well, usually I try to avoid it, maybe 15 minutes before I want to go to sleep, I’ll be like, “Oh, let me get one last check.” if any critical emails came in or anything that I need to worry about before I go to bed, which is kind of pointless. So that was the toughest thing. A few nights I did, I was able to do that. Yeah, but a lot of the other stuff, like avoiding TV or exercise, trying to cut back on my caffeine, those are really good reminders to be like, “Okay, let’s just not have any caffeine after 1:00 today.”
There’s probably more than one mechanism within us that’s keeping us from sleep. So it is also looking at your body and like not drinking liquids. So you have to wake up to use the water closet or the idea of taking a hot bath or a shower to help your body cool down, avoiding LED lights. Those are all things that are easy to kind of brush off to or be, like, resistant to. “Oh, no, no. That’s too much work.” But when you think about maybe, again, taking a step outside yourself and say, “Hey, how am I going to prepare my body for sleep, too?” It might be easier.
Dacher Keltner: You know, we so often forget the body in this culture and this literature. Like, you know, one of the things we’ve learned about the benefits of being outdoors is a lot of it is just body. It’s like the rhythms of water and the scents of flowers affect your heart rate and your blood pressure. What would you tell people, what would you tell that little kid you used to be about, like, what to do with your body before you go to sleep?
Drew Ackerman:I think about this alot. For me, it’s always sometimes useful to be more imaginative or for maybe some let’s just be like, “Oh, let’s do a cosplay.” If you’re not a parent to be like, “Hey, let’s look at this little kid that you used to be or your niece or your nephew or your child and say, ‘What would you do for them to to walk them through it?’”
Because sometimes, again, like these messages with our culture, it’s like, “Oh, you’ve got to be tough. You’ve got to be resilient.” Like, what does resilience mean? “Oh, I want to be a leader,” or whatever, but it’s like, “Hey, how would you walk this kid through taking care of themselves?” If it’s harder for you to do it for yourself, it’s like, or your best friend or someone you’re in love with, like what — How would you offer them the advice to take care of themselves and then just, you know, turn it around on yourself, like sneaking. I always have to sneak stuff past my critic, like past that goalie. So, yeah.
I mean, I think about this a lot. Like I think that it is something that maybe the idea of fixing it is, is not helpful. It’s like maybe the idea of being there and soothing and saying, hey, I know it’s really tough. For me. It was like, “I know you’re really having a tough time at school. And I don’t know exactly what we’re going to do about it, but I’m here to help you right now. Maybe I could tell you a story or, you know, we could talk about driving in the car, but I’ll be here for you now to comfort you.” Instead of offering a solution it’s like, kind of offering a presence. Like, a loving presence. Yeah
Dacher Keltner: That’s cool. And we’re so solution-focused, so just creating a safe space. Drew, being steeped in the sleep world and having your own novel perspective on it, what are the two or three essential tips?
Drew Ackerman: I mean, I think for me it’s just validating and prioritizing your sleep.
It is okay to say you deserve a good night’s sleep to yourself and say, “Hey, I want to prioritize this,” because there’s a lot of shame in our world of like, oh, well, you can’t put you should be putting all this stuff first, but don’t put yourself first. Yeah, but it’s like taking some empathy and compassion to say, “Hey, you really do deserve this rest.”
But in a sense, if you’re already struggling with it, kind of getting out of the idea that you’re doing it wrong or that you know, you’re dysfunctional, I think a lot of stuff, people already feel disempowered, like, “Oh, this is hopeless.” You have to kind of go through the process. It is a process and some of the result is falling asleep. But we can only really control the setup part. Yeah, but if it is grounded in empathy and compassion and kind of the self self-soothing thing, I think you just have a better chance at easing yourself into sleep.
Dacher Keltner: I hear you. And the real risk of the happiness literature and the sleep literature and my colleague Iris Mauss and June Gruber have called this out like we can get obsessed with this stuff and then we’re in our worry cycles. Right? And it’s just like, here’s some tips and try it out and see what works.
Drew Ackerman: Yeah, I think it’s always like a process of going towards happiness or going towards good sleep, and it’s also a natural inclination to be like, Well, I want the results, I want the happiness, I want the sleep now. And it’s like, okay, I get that you want to now, but let’s just try this process, try these things. And just keep doing them. It’s like living in both worlds or something.
Dacher Keltner: It is. It’s always the paradox. Well, Drew Ackerman, thank you so much for being here. And thank you for your work.
Drew Ackerman Thanks so much for having me on. Thank you.
Dacher Keltner: Does someone you care about struggle with sleep? Share this episode with them. It might make a big impact in their life to learn more about getting a good night’s rest/ Up next, we hear from a sleep expert about how sleep loss affects loneliness.
Eti Ben Simon: Sleep loss not only affects the individual, but also the people around them and their desire to be with the people around them. And I think it’s fascinating.
Dacher Keltner: More about sleep’s lesser known effects on our lives, after these ads.
Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner. We’ve been looking at approaches you can take to help you fall asleep. And in case you missed anything, we’ve got a list of great, science-backed sleep tips in our show notes – so check those out wherever you’re listening now.
Now we’re going to hear about what happens to our social lives, when we don’t get enough sleep. Here’s Shuka in conversation with neuroscientist and sleep expert Eti Ben Simon.
Shuka Kalantari: I spoke with Dr. Simon about a series of experiments she did at the Center for Human Sleep Science, here at UC Berkeley. We started by talking about her experiment where she tested people’s desires to be physically close to others after a night of no sleep.
Eti Ben Simon: So we had young, healthy individuals stay awake for one night. They visit the lab twice. One time they are allowed to sleep, the other time they stay awake, unfortunately for them with me. And then we do an in-person, it’s called a social distance task. This is before the pandemic, so nobody knew what it was. But you have the participant facing the experimenter and we ask the experimenter to slowly walk up towards the participant.
And the participant has to tell us how close or far they want the experimenter to be. And whenever they say, “Stop,” that person stops. And we measured the distance. And this was done in the lab, outside the scanner. But then we also asked them to go into a functional MRI scanner, and we looked at the activity of their brain while other people were approaching them on screen, so on camera.
For both this sort of virtual task and the task where the people were actually physically walking up towards them, we found the same effect: they prefer others to stay further away when they had no sleep.
Shuka Kalantari; How did you get these people to stay up all night?
Eti Ben Simon; Oh, you pay them.
Shuka Kalantari; But how do you know they’re awake?
Eti Ben Simon; We keep an eye on them. They are never alone. We just stay with them. It’s kind of funny, by 3:00 AM. They can’t think anymore, so they just watch movies or YouTubE. By 5 AM they wonder why they chose this study. They don’t like us. They don’t like the research assistants. By 6 or 7 AM the biological clock kicks in a bit. Suddenly they have a bit of that arousal response because this is the time they usually wake up. So they feel slightly better but still very, very tired.
Shuka Kalantari: And how did you feel at 5 a.m.?
Eti Ben Simon: Oh, my God. After about a month of this, I just started crying from every song, every pop song on the radio. And I realized that I AM experiencing the emotional imbalance and the mood impairments that come with sleep loss.
Shuka Kalantari: Why do you think that sleep loss specifically causes this desire, or at least this action, towards physically wanting separation from people?
Eti Ben Simon: Yeah, that goes back to the brain activity that we were looking at. So when people were looking at others approaching on camera, when they were in the scanner, what we saw is that there is a network that tends to monitor anyone within a hand’s reach around us. It’s sort of like an alarm system and it goes off whenever someone comes too close. And what we saw that after sleep deprivation, that this network is highly sensitive. So imagine you have an alarm network at your house and it would tell you whenever someone gets to the door when you’re sleep-deprived, it would warn you when someone’s already across the street.
And then that sensitivity of that network made it so that people who are sleep deprived prefer greater distance from others.
When you think about sleep, it’s really a solitary function. Even if we sleep next to other people, we are completely disconnected from the environment, we are disconnected from others. And I think that that movement towards that disconnection actually begins even before that, we withdraw ourselves from the environment slowly as preparation for going into sleep. And I think that process intensifies when we sleep deprive someone, when we don’t let them sleep, that desire to withdraw inwards, to start disconnecting.
Shuka Kalantari: This just reminds me of, like, being a new mom.
Eti Ben Simon: Yeah sleep loss is one of the greatest risk factors for postpartum depression.
Shuka Kalantari: One of the other pitfalls of sleep deprivation is that not only is there this social distance and loneliness, but it also affects our ability to perceive correctly what others are thinking or feeling. Tell me about that.
Eti Ben Simon: A network of regions in the brain known as the theory of Mind is highly impaired without sleep. It’s called The Theory of Mind, because it’s activated when we think about other people’s minds, when we think about what are people like, what do they think, what are their motivation? And in two studies we’ve done so far, we saw that this network is significantly impaired without sleep. And this could suggest that our ability to think about what other people want is really impaired. A lot more studies also show that people are less empathic towards others without sleep. We’re not able to entertain other people’s minds if we don’t have that sleep, if we are not ourselves calm enough and rested enough.
Shuka Kalantari: So how does this affect how others perceive us?
Eti Ben Simon: People who come into contact with someone who is sleep-deprived choose to not interact with them as much and also not to collaborate with them.
You know, does this person seem nice, intelligent, healthy, and we see impairments in all of these domains. So people who are sleep deprived seem a bit less socially interesting to others. And one of the reasons we think that this is happening is also because they seem more sickly. People who are sleep-deprived, appear to others as less healthy. And when you think about it in evolutionary terms, it makes sense. You want to keep away from someone who might be sick.
Shuka Kalantari: So I think we’ve clearly established that not sleeping sucks all around, for your brain, body and social life.
Eti Ben Simon: Yeah. I would also add to this “Why would we want to sleep less?” That’s something that I want to study more. Why is that constant pressure not to sleep. When you think about sleep, it’s almost like a magical creature, because those amazing benefits just come to you and we have to work so hard during our wakeful hours to get ahead in life and to study and improve and stay healthy but all sleep is asking us to do is just like lie down and close our eyes and yet we struggle with it so much.
Shuka Kalantari: Eti, thank you so much for sharing the science of sleep. And thank you so much for being a guest on our show.
Eti Ben Simon: My pleasure. Sleep well.
Dacher Keltner: Thank’s Shuka. What happens when we set the intention to do something nice for someone else?
Humans have three basic psychological needs, a sense of autonomy, a sense that you’re competent and good at things in life and then social connections, intimacy with other people. doing kind actions seems to tap into all three of those basic psychological needs.
Dacher Keltner: We explore the science of doing good for others, On our next episode of The Science of Happiness.
I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
Rate and review us wherever you’re listening. We really appreciate it.
Our Executive producer is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Sound designer is Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios. Our associate producer Maarya Zafar. Executive director is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.