Should you lose sleep over losing sleep over the economy?

<a href="">"Can't sleep from stress" via Shutterstock</a>
"Can't sleep from stress" via Shutterstock

Three economists issued a wake-up call of some sort about the economy and sleep. The economists say that people who say they lose sleep over the economy are — in the aggregate, statistically speaking, based on some data and cogitation —wrong.

Marina Antillon of Yale, Diane S. Lauderdale of the University of Chicago, and John Mullahy of the University of Wisconsin explain themselves in a new study called “Sleep behavior and unemployment conditions” [published in the journal Economics & Human Biology, vol. 14, July 2014, pp. 22–32].

You might think that the phrase “losing sleep over the economy” is just a vague metaphor. The Antillon/Lauderdale/Mullahy report seems to think otherwise:

Our results demonstrate significant empirical relationships involving local macroeconomic conditions and the manner in which individuals allocate time to sleep versus other competing uses of their time…. This contradicts survey results that asked about losing sleep over the economy.

Those survey results come from two specific places. One of those places is described in a press release issued by the National Sleep Foundation in 1999. The press release begins:

One-third of Americans are losing sleep over the state of the U.S. economy and other personal financial concerns, according to a new poll released today by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF)….

The other survey results come from Iceland, after that nation’s economy super-inflated and then burst asunder in a humongous banking scandal. Antillon, Lauderdale, Mullahy say they read about it in a paper called “Are Recessions Good for Your Health Behaviors? Impacts of the Economic Crisis in Iceland“, by Tinna Laufey Ásgeirsdóttir, Hope Corman, Kelly Noonan, Þórhildur Ólafsdóttir, Nancy E. Reichman [National Bureau of Economics Research Working Paper No. 18233, issued in July 2012].

There are many complications in the story of sleeplessness and the economy. Antillo, Lauderdale, Mullahy make special warning, in their report, about one of those complications:

There are important limitations to this study. Sleep time is a measure of time set aside to sleep rather than a measure of physiological sleep. It is also possible that other activities that take place in bed are reported as sleep. Some individuals may not think to distinguish ‘sleeplessness’ from their overall sleep time, and it is possible that the secular trend of increasing sleeplessness is actually a reflection of increasing reporting of sleeplessness. The past decade has seen increasing attention to sleep as a health problem in the popular media, and this may have raised awareness.

Thus, bit by bit, do economists help themselves and us make sense of that complicated thing called the economy.

(By the way, here’s a different, very non-scholarly way to summarize that study: People who don’t go to work every day have more time to sleep.)



Marc Abrahams is the editor of the Annals of Improbable Research magazine and organizer of the Ig Nobel Prizes.
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