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I'm a Night Owl. Deal With It

Our late-rising writer argues for chronotype diversity. Also: keeping it down so she can sleep in

spinner image Night Owl
Sarah Peng/AARP

It’s 1 a.m., and I’m sitting in my living room, watching what I choose on TV, as happy as a clam. I don’t have to justify myself if I want to turn the thermostat higher; I don’t need to negotiate over whether to mute the commercials. I can just do me. 

Is it any wonder this is my favorite time of day?

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Upstairs, my husband of 35 years has been asleep for hours. He’ll be up by 3:30, hurrying downstairs to make himself a big hot breakfast, then dashing off to the gym before he heads for work. Me, I’ll sleep in till the last possible minute, grab coffee at Dunkin’, and barely make it to my office at the appointed hour.

Doug is viewed by society at large as a rock, a pillar, a stand-up guy with clean morals and a superb work ethic. Me? I’m a slug. I’m dragging down Western Civilization. I’m what’s left at the tail end of human evolution — a lazy, shiftless profligate who should be thoroughly ashamed of myself.

I blame Ben Franklin for this.

Actually, I should start with whatever dude wrote the Book of Proverbs. While Ben was responsible for that “Early to bed, early to rise” crapola, it was some nameless biblical sage who decreed, “Do not love sleep or you will grow poor.” And, man, that advice lingered. In the 20th century, everyone from Opus Dei founder Josemaría Escrivá (who gave the name “the heroic minute” to that instant when the alarm goes off and by sheer force of will decent humans everywhere spring from their beds, already giving thanks for the newfound day) to Fortune 500 CEOs (proud members of the 4 a.m. club, the hour at which they are apparently able to make even more money without interruption) has extolled the virtues of getting up an hour early enough to mean you will never really be that much fun at parties.

spinner image Night Owl Sandy Hingston
Sandy Hingston says there’s no shame in an atypical sleep pattern. Different (clock) strokes for different folks.
Courtesy Claudia Gavin

I say to hell with all that.

Listen, I raised two kids, so I know all about early rising. But those kids are now having kids of their own. (Suckers!) I no longer have a dog who needs to be let out into the yard, just a cat who’s blessedly nocturnal. There’s no earthly reason for me to wake up with the sun. So I’m not going to.

There was a time in human history when my night-owl tendencies were welcomed by the tribe; somebody had to take the late shift looking out for saber-toothed tigers. 

But now, that whole early-to-rise spiel is just left over from when humans turned to agriculture and had to work 18-hour days to eke a living from the land. Me, I’ve got Wegmans. What’s more, the fact I get enough sleep means I don’t nod off in a rocking chair with my mouth open after two beers, unlike certain other parties I could name if I wasn’t interested in my marriage lasting 36 years.

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As science delves more deeply into what’s now being termed chronotype diversity, some interesting tidbits have turned up. While it’s true that most humans are early risers — Matthew Walker, director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at University of California, Berkeley, puts the figure at 40 percent — nearly that many, 30 percent, are latter-day saints like me, with the other 30 percent falling somewhere in between. This makes the tyranny that society’s larks exert over scheduling even more infuriating. Research confirms that we’re pretty much born with our internal clocks, and there’s no sense trying to tinker with them. As Rosemary Braun, a Northwestern University biostatistics professor, recently described it, “The clock on the wall isn’t always a good indication of what time it is for you personally.”

To bolster their superiority, early risers like to point to research showing that night owls die earlier, have poorer memories, suffer more from depression, and drink and smoke more than slugabeds. (Well, duh. Ever try to find a bar at 7 a.m.?) “Delayed sleep phase syndrome” has also been linked to personality disorders like narcissism and psychopathy.

But guess what? The world is changing yet again, shaken by a revolution as profound as that long-ago shift to farming. Globalization and technology let us bust through time zones. An estimated 80 percent of businesses now offer flexible work hours. (My own 10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. day at the office also lets me skirt the worst of commuting traffic.) Online shopping and meal ordering have made store and restaurant hours increasingly obsolete. And more and more of us work from home, connecting to the office remotely, with our jammies on if we please.

Backed by science, late risers are, um, rising up, albeit more toward noon than at the crack of dawn. Tech entrepreneurs including Mark Zuckerberg and Alexis Ohanian talk openly and unabashedly about their night-owl tendencies. Schools are experimenting with deferred start times, driven by studies showing that teens do better scholastically and emotionally on a later schedule. And new research hints that along with all the bad stuff afflicting the chronotypically diverse, night owls are smarter than the rest of humankind, as well as more likely to take risks.

There’s even a new blood test that can pinpoint your personal sleep cycle, to help you better coordinate your inner clock with the world at large. Which all seems to clearly signal that there’s no longer any reason for us all to march through life in sync. So show some respect, and keep the noise down in the morning, will you? I’m under the covers, working on being my best self.

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