Over the years, I’ve read many Christian living books, and one of them stands out as offering the worst advice. It was published in the 1980s, by a prominent church leader. It described how we can organize our personal lives in order to be more effective as Christians. He actually had a lot of good things to say, but then he started writing about sleep. He had read somewhere that if we gradually cut on how long we sleep, we can eventually do just fine with a lot less sleep. This gives us more time to do our good works. He had tried this himself and reported having several more hours to each day.
It turns out that getting enough of sleep is really, really important for just about everything that we do. In fact, it might even help win Super Bowl championships.
How much does sleep affect our day-to-day spirituality?
To answer this question, I’m going to use data from the SoulPulse study. This study, which ran from 2014-2016, surveyed thousands of participants each for a two-week period. It sent surveys to their smartphones, at random times of the day, asking various questions about their lives and spirituality. Two of the questions, sent each morning, asked about their previous night’s sleep. Another question asked them how aware of God they were at that moment. They answered using a slider bar from “not at all” to “very much” on a 100-point scale.
First, let’s look at hours slept. This figure shows how levels of God awareness changed depending on how long people slept. As you can see, there is some impact. People who had slept only four hours the night before scored almost 2 points lower in God awareness than they normally experienced. (In technical terms, I’m analyzing within-person, rather than between-person, change. This makes for a stronger, though still not conclusive, statement about causality). In contrast, people who slept 8 or 9 hours had almost two points more of God awareness. Sleeping too long—10 hours—actually had less benefit than sleeping for an hour or two less.
So, how long we sleep matters. In addition, how well we sleep matters even more. As shown in this figure, the SoulPulse participants who woke up saying they had slept well the night before correspondingly reported being 2-3 points higher on God awareness than they usually were. In contrast, people who slept poorly scored 2-4 points lower on God Awareness.
Why this relationship? In my experience, I’m less aware of everything when I sleep badly. I walk into things unintentionally; my reflexes slow down when I drive; I have difficulty retaining what I read, and so on. I’m not an expert on sleep, either professionally or personally. I assume that smart people who study sleep know of various biological mechanisms that drive the relationship between sleep and awareness. What I’ve shown here, however, is that there is a clear association between how long and well we sleep and our awareness of God the next day. Now, I’m not sure if this is enough benefit to justify sleeping through sermons, but it is yet another good reason to get to bed earlier.