It is common wisdom that between long work hours, 24/7 connectivity, and household responsibilities, Americans are increasingly sleep deprived. One 2013 Gallup Poll found that only 29% of Americans said they got eight hours of sleep (just 5% said they got nine hours or more), leading to an average sleep of 6.8 hours per day. Figures like this have led to the U.S.'s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declaring that "insufficient sleep is a public health problem."
Yet according to a new survey that had thousands of Americans report how they spent the previous day (rolling over the entire year), this impression is false. Not only does the average American sleep well over eight hours per day, sleep totals have been increasing in recent years.
Every year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics undertakes the American Time Use Survey (ATUS) to find out how many hours the average American devotes to sleep, work, housework, childcare, leisure, and other activities. Unlike most surveys, the ATUS does not ask about any specific category of time (e.g. "How many hours do you work?"). Researchers ask people to say what they did next, going through a 24-hour period.
This difference in methodology matters. "There is a social desirability element with sleep," says Stephanie Denton, an economist with the BLS. "If you frame a sleep question in the context of a job survey, people actually tend to report less sleep, because it’s seen as more socially desirable to report that you’re sleeping less."
Researchers with the ATUS also do not ask about "typical" days, because this can introduce bias. "There’s some research indicating that people think about times when they were not getting a lot of sleep because those stick out most," says Denton. Negative events are generally more memorable than positive ones. The ATUS asks about the previous day, which might be atypical for any one person, but averaged over thousands of people, should even out. Since the survey also covers how people spend weekends, and looks at an entire 24-hour day (and hence would include any naps), the results give a more holistic picture of time.
The BLS released the results from its 2015 survey on June 24. Researchers found that the average American slept 8.83 hours per day (men slept 8.77; women slept 8.90). This came out to 8.59 hours on weekdays, and 9.40 hours on weekends.
These numbers have trended up, not down, over the past decade. In 2003, the average American slept 8.57 hours, or about 15 minutes less per day than he or she currently does. Denton confirms that this upward trend is statistically significant. There may be a few reasons for this. Employed people generally sleep less than people who are not working, and labor force participation has declined in recent years. Also, "we have more older Americans as the population ages, and older Americans typically sleep longer," says Denton.
The current figure, 8.83 hours, is within the widespread public health guidance of seven to nine hours per day. However, some researchers have been re-examining this guidance in recent years. Some studies have found that seven hours per day is associated with the lowest risks, and that sleeping eight hours or more might be associated with health problems.
This suggests that not only is sleep deprivation less widespread than it is imagined to be, people in fact might be sleeping too much, though the lowered sleep target is controversial in medical circles. It’s also unclear what is cause and effect. People in poor health might sleep more than people in good health, but the extra sleep might be a symptom of health conditions, not a cause.
Averages mean nothing about any individual. I track my time and I know that over the past year I averaged 7.4 hours a day. Certain categories of Americans sleep less than others. For instance, I recently did a time diary study of women who earned six figures and had kids, and found they averaged 7.7 hours a day. According to the ATUS, employed Americans who have school-aged children average 8.36 hours of sleep per day (men get 8.31; women get 8.42). That’s close to half an hour less per day than the overall average, though it is still within the recommended amount of sleep.
Critics of the ATUS have pointed out that it has its own methodology flaws. For instance, if someone says she went to bed at 10:00 p.m., but it took her 15 minutes to fall asleep, ATUS researchers would code the 10:00 slot as sleep. This generally produces longer estimates. However, if she says she took longer than a half-hour to fall asleep, the researchers would code this with whatever she was doing during that time (watching TV? Lying there?), so the sleep totals won’t be hours off. Denton reports that ATUS researchers have been working to improve accuracy, and are doing a small pilot with Fitbit to see how those numbers compare with time diaries.
In any case, while sleep deprivation certainly exists, the new findings do suggest that on the whole, the average American gets enough sleep. Logging 8.59 hours on a weekday isn't bad at all. That may be small comfort to anyone pounding coffee after a bad night, but at least the research finds that those bad nights are more rare than people think.