What is it that you do most often that you hardly ever talk about? It’s okay, you can wipe that smirk off your face. I wasn’t referring to the sort of activity that should find no place in a family newspaper, etc. etc.
Nine is fine: It’s no longer fashionable to say you’re sleep deprived. Photograph: Jupiterimages, India
No, my concern was with sleep. Most of us spend at least a third of our lives asleep. That’s more time than we spend on most other activities — eating, talking, shopping, watching TV, meeting friends and yes, sex — with the possible exception of the time we spend at the office (though I’m not sure: If you work a five-day week and take vacations, then you probably spend more time in bed than at your desk).
And yet, we are curiously ambivalent about sleep. We concede that there’s nothing like a good night’s rest but rarely do we do anything about it. The only people who bother with how hard or soft their mattresses are tend to be those with back trouble. The rest of us don’t seem to care. Nor do we worry too much about how much sleep we are getting. We sleep when we are tired and we wake up when we have to — usually when the alarm rings.
But sleep is probably an important factor in determining quality of life and certainly in assessing personality type. Take some examples. Amitabh Bachchan, a famous insomniac, needs little sleep and wakes up early each morning to go to the studios. His contemporaries, Shatrughan Sinha and Rajesh Khanna liked their beds and would be impossible to rouse in the mornings. Guess which one of them is still a big star?
Even among very successful people, the ones who need very little sleep are clearly different personality types from those who need the full eight hours. Anil Ambani rarely needs more than five. Mukesh Ambani likes his eight hours. Both are billionaires but the differing sleep patterns tell us something about how they differ as people.
Years ago, perturbed by my need for nine hours of sleep while all my friends arose, bright and chirpy, after just six, I morosely concluded that the world belonged to people who needed little sleep. Bed-lovers like myself, I thought, self-pityingly, are life’s losers.
Certainly, throughout the 1980s, everywhere I looked, it was the four-five hour people who were shining. Rajiv Gandhi, a workaholic and a stickler for detail, would hold meetings till 2am. At 7.30 the next morning, he would be cheerfully greeting visitors, showing no signs of sleep deprivation. Margaret Thatcher needed a mere four hours. No matter how late she worked, she would be up with the lark, practising getting her accent right and waiting for the make-up to be trowelled on.
And then, of course, there was Bachchan. In 1980, I spent several days shadowing him for a story for India Today. He would finish late into the night, wearing some silly costume and gyrating to some mindless song. I would go home tired, force myself to wake up the next morning, and arrive at the sets only to discover that at 7am, he was already in his van, waiting for his co-stars to arrive.
I only began to feel better about my love of sleep after I read about Ronald Reagan, surely one of the most influential post-war American presidents, who liked nine hours of sleep and told his aides not to bother him at night unless nuclear war broke out. Then I asked Mukesh Ambani about his sleep habits and when I discovered they matched mine, my anxieties began to clear up.
Now, however, I think the world is slowly coming round to my view that sleep is wonderful. Researchers tell us that while sleep deprivation may have worked wonders for the likes of Thatcher, people who sleep for less than seven hours tend to suffer from impaired judgement and needless stress. Nobody is convinced that my I-need-nine-hours position is medically sound but the five-hours- is-enough lobby now faces the brunt of medical opprobrium.
Which, I think, is a good thing. Because most of us wake up when we have to (usually because we are due at the office) not when we are ready to, we do not give our brains (let alone our bodies) the rest they need.
Moreover, we focus too little on quality of sleep.
We treat snoring as a joke — as the sort of sound effect that men provide after sex. But research has shown that many snorers suffer from sleep apnea, a potentially life-threatening condition. And a disturbed sleep is often worse than no sleep at all. Nakul Anand, who runs ITC Hotels, reckons that people are finally recognizing that, with sleep, you need both quantity and quality. According to him, ITC Hotels are in the business not of selling rooms (everybody does that) but of selling sleep.
It is a view that is becoming more and more popular. Other hotels may not go as far, but most will now offer pillow menus, and will design their rooms so that no light enters and ambient noise is minimized. Many will, like ITC, offer aromatherapy fragrances to make you relax while you sleep.
All this is good news. We need to focus more on sleep and on the time we give our bodies and brains to regenerate. Almost everybody I know who brags about surviving on very little sleep is hypertense and prone to stress. In many cases, the sleep deprivation leads to bad temper and faulty judgement.
I’m now convinced that it is a myth that the sleep deprived will inherit the world. After all, if a good night’s rest worked for Reagan and it works for Mukesh Ambani, then who are we to disagree?
Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org