Bed at 9pm for a happy life? Only if you’re happy doing nothing but work

It’s 5pm and I leave work on the dot. I hop on the train at 5.11pm and hop off at 5.43pm, meaning I’m at my front door by six. I go straight into a 30-minute workout and then a 15-minute shower. Time to eat. I’m not a good cook so a 20-minute recipe takes an hour. Dinner is served at 8pm. Fifteen minutes to wolf it down, another 15 to do the washing up. It’s 8.45pm and I get into bed. I glance at the clock: 9pm, it says. I fall asleep instantly.

This sort of efficiency, a soul-sucking militant kind, is what it would take for me to sleep at 9pm – which is apparently, according to a recent study published in The Wall Street Journal, the new preferred bedtime of people my age. In 2022, those in their twenties reported getting an average of nine hours and 28 minutes of sleep – an 8 per cent increase from the eight hours and 47 minutes they reported in 2010.

Reading these findings and seeing these case studies, photographs of well-rested people wearing cosy pyjamas and serene smiles, I beseech them: how? How does one sleep at 9pm while navigating long commutes and longer work hours, household chores and self-care? When do you shop for groceries? When do you call your mum?

It’s not that we don’t want to sleep earlier. Every exhausted morning ushers in a new vow to not stay up so late. We’re inundated daily with columns of research linking poor sleep with terrifying things like cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and a shortened life span. We know sleep is good for us, the same way we know exercise is. But even with everything sleep has going for it – its life-saving qualities, not to mention the sheer joy of just being unconscious for a bit – it feels near impossible to get any more of it.

It’s a matter of logistics, really. There aren’t enough hours in the day. At least eight of them are spent at your place of work. Probably more. So by the time we get home, after an inevitably delayed commute, there’s hardly enough time to take a shower and shovel some food down.

Even if achieving that utopian efficiency was possible (work, workout, eat, sleep, repeat) it sounds absolutely hellish. Where is the time for joy? For family and friends? We are warned constantly with a wagging finger from above that we’re living in a loneliness epidemic. Last year, the Campaign to End Loneliness found that just under one in 10 people aged 16 to 29 reported feeling lonely often or always; the World Health Organisation declared it a “global public health concern”.

People’s social lives are already being squeezed by, among other things, anxiety and money woes (hanging out has never been so expensive). If we subtract those prime socialising hours and head straight for bed instead of the pub, what time is left to see our pals? There’s the weekend, sure, but those days fly by. And Sunday hardly counts – it’s reserved for dreaded life-admin and mentally preparing for the week ahead. An early bedtime would be a death knell for many people’s social lives; maintaining friendships takes time and forging new ones takes even more. (If you’re dating – that’s another sizable block of hours to add to the timesheet.)

So it feels jarring to hear that young people are sleeping earlier. Just a few months ago, another study found the same age bracket suffers from a lack of it altogether. According to research on almost 10,000 adults aged 18-65, 46 per cent of Gen-Zers struggle to fall asleep on more than half of the days in a week, with only 35 per cent sleeping more than seven hours a night. It was only recently that the “sleepy girl mocktail” (an allegedly narcoleptic combination of tart cherry juice and magnesium powder) went viral on TikTok, an online testament to a nation of overtired youth. People gasped in envy at Dakota Johnson’s revelation that she clocks 14 hours on the regular. Prescriptions for the sleep aid melatonin, too, have increased rapidly among children and young people in England, up 170 per cent in the last seven years, according to a 2022 study by The Pharmaceutical Journal.

It’s this image, of someone doom-scrolling under their duvet at 3am unable to will their bodies into slumber, that more closely resembles my own experience and, for its anecdotal worth, that of my friends. So long as we’re expected to do everything, to always be optimising and permanently productive (even self-care is a chore by this point), sleeping at 9pm is just another impossible ideal on an endless to-do list. It’s not a coincidence that we’ll do pretty much everything else to get a better sleep (whale noises; sleepy teas; night-time technology bans; bedtime stories read aloud by Matthew McConaughey), but we won’t give up late nights. For most people, it’s the only time we get to ourselves. Our dark hours of pleasure and pubs and Netflix. To give that up? I’d rather be tired.

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