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The biggest recent improvement I've made for an increased sense of meaning
I’m skeptical of people who believe those chosen area of expertise is the key to understanding the hidden secrets of how the world works. Every expert believes that. They know more about their area, and so for reasons of hammers and nails see everything in those terms. What really impresses me is when an expert endorses something from outside their discipline as a key explanation. The expert has no motivation to do so beyond the fact that they found something they think is genuinely important.
So I initially rolled my eyes at Matthew Walker and his book Why We Sleep when it first came out. Okay, so the sleep guy thinks sleep is really important and that we should all architect our lives around doing it better. Of course he does! He’s the sleep guy! What he is blind to, as the sleep guy, is that for the rest of us our lives don’t revolve around sleep.
Basically, I didn’t like the sleep argument because I thought it missed the point. Life is about doing meaningful stuff. Not... being unconscious. But you know what? I’m starting to rethink that. I think there’s actually a deep connection between sleep and our perception of life’s meaningfulness.
The connection is this: Because of flexibility of meaning, our disposition plays a huge role in how we see meaning. Sleep affects mood. Therefore, sleep affects the probability that we will see our lives as ones soaked through with meaningful pursuits of legitimate significance rather than strewn with meaningless activities which don’t really matter.
I’m turning 30 in a month, and for the past 10 weeks or so I’ve been undertaking what I’m calling a “wellness audit.” I’m scrutinizing my habits around exercise, nutrition, sleep, and overall health to see what minor tweaks I can make in anticipation of my next decade of bodily decline. Sleep was the first problem I tackled.
I’ve never been a great sleeper. It’s not uncommon for me to be up for two or three hours a night, with my mind racing. Usually I’m filled with anxiety about work I’d like to do or have failed to get done. And at some point along the line I simply accepted this and decided to leverage it as my main podcast/audiobook time. I congratulated myself on finding another 10 or so hours a week to listen to substantive content. This is a common topic of conversation between my mom and I: which podcasts we’ve been listening to during our nightly bouts of restless insomnia. I figured it was a fact of life. My life, anyway. I probably inherited poor sleep from my mom. And at any rate up until recently I was a PhD student, a group who are notorious for their achievements in anxiety and diminished well-being.
But eventually it got to the point where I was sleeping really poorly every night. And I suspected it might be making me more of a bitch than I really ought to be. So I started taking steps to sleep better. And so for wellness advice, I turned to—as everyone seems to be doing these days—the Huberman Lab podcast. Honestly, though. It’s really good.
Huberman has this kick about getting morning sunlight. He claims that research shows how getting sunlight directly to your eyes first thing in the morning helps to set your circadian rhythm for the day and therefore leads to better sleep later that night. (He makes this claim in just about every podcast episode, but here’s an example tweet; if you want to check out the research directly, he’s a recent review paper.) But there’s also an expertise problem here. By training, Andrew Huberman is an ophthalmologist. Of course he thinks the secret to a healthy life has to do with the eyes! That’s his speciality! Either (a) he’s overestimating the impact of his own field of study on other, more complicated aspects of life, or (b) he’s discovered this secret biohack than none of the rest of know because we don’t read ophthalmology journals. While (a) is far more likely the case, I’ve come to think it’s actually (b). He’s right about the morning sunlight thing. I’m a convert.
At any rate, I’ve gone from being a terrible sleeper to being able to pretty much guarantee a good night’s sleep. Here are the four changes I made:
Morning sunlight. This is the easiest, because I’m in Vietnam and morning sunlight is readily available. It’s really bright here. This will be less easy when I’m back in Seattle or London, where it’s cloudy in the morning. So I’ll have to see what happens during the parts of the year when I’m back over there.
No caffeine after 3pm. It turns out that the quarter-life of caffeine is about 10 hours, meaning that a quarter of the caffeine you consume is still in your system 10 hours after intake. Previously I wasn’t shy about having a big ol’ cup of cold-brew coffee at 4pm for an afternoon work sesh. Now, I aim for my last coffee of the day to be at 2pm—between noon and one is ideal, and three is the cut off point.
Minimize liquid after dinner. I also realized what was waking me up in the middle of the night was that I was getting up to use the bathroom. Walking around, turning the lights on, etc was enough to get my brain going. So now, I try to get most of my hydration in before dinner. Then after 8pm, I try to stop drinking water or tea altogether (unless I’m really thirsty). This has worked well.
Less alcohol. Previously, I liked to have a drink in the evening. Whether with dinner, for a social event, or just as a nightcap—it was something I enjoyed pretty regularly. But I realized it was absolutely killing my sleep. If you’re ever gone for a big night out and woken up the following morning with rampant anxiety, alcohol induces anxiety in the same way even at more modest levels of consumption. It may quell anxiety in the moment; but you pay for that later on. That realization was huge for me. I had always kinda assumed there was no harm in having a drink or two in the evening. Not every night. But a few nights a week, absolutely. The evening is fractionally more enjoyable that way. So why not? Taking sleep seriously really gave me answer to that question. What’s really more enjoyable is waking up the next day well-rested with a full slate of energy. (I know. I’m old.)
Anyway, speaking of alcohol, there’s a point in Huberman’s conversation with Matthew Walker where Huberman asks him pointblank: Is there any way to have an alcoholic drink in the evening, even a single one, and not have it affect your sleep? Walker says, unfortunately no.
Walker then outlines his understanding of the evidence of how alcohol affects sleep—which is essentially that alcohol makes it easier to fall asleep but it screws with the architecture of the night’s sleep cycle, and that’s is where the real restfulness comes from. But then Walker put an addendum on that prescription. His goal is to give people to the power to make informed choices. To allow them to make adult trade-offs based on evidence and not just assumption or supposition. As he put it: “but I also want to say, life is to be loved to a certain degree. It’s all about checks and balances.” Go ahead. Have a drink if you want. One poor night of sleep isn’t going to kill you. You just have to know what you doing.
He even admitted to being a little too gung-ho sleep-well-at-all-costs when he first started gaining prominence on a public stage. I appreciated that. And I really felt like in his recent material he’s struck a nice balance. Sleep isn’t a primary experience of meaning. Unless you’re the “sleep guy” it’s never going to be the thing you derive meaning from directly. But I’ve come to think of it as a kind of secondary structure of meaning. My mood has improved. It’s easier to have a favorable interpretation of life’s events and activities. And so I’ve come to believe that sleep is actually a crucial part of meaningful engagement. Sleep supports—and potentially even augments—the perception of meaning in other activities. The painting itself may be what’s meaningful. But the artist still needs to start with a clean canvas.