The Upside of Being a Night Owl

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The benefits of being an early bird have been understood by researchers for a while. Early risers are famously more likely to be successful, and there’s even evidence that they’re all-around better humans than night owls. 

A recent study, for example, found that night owls are more likely to have higher rates of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and even psychopathy than their morning lark brethren. But however much morning people look down on those whose inner clock is set a little later, there’s an emerging understanding that there are some bright sides to sleeping in, too.

Night owls are more creative and smarter. Daylight-based schedules are a convention, and it takes a high IQ to think of a new way of structuring each day, posits a 2009 paper from the London School of Economics. According to that report’s logic, the earliest humans used the daylight hours to get stuff done, and trying a routine that’s evolutionarily a little different — like staying up late to work, or even to goof off — is the kind of thing more intelligent people tend to do. Innovation takes smarts, in other words.

Night owls are more relaxed. Early risers have higher levels of cortisol, the hormone associated with stress, according to British research from the late 1990s. People who woke earlier than 7:21 a.m. had the highest cortisol levels, and they stayed elevated as the day went on.

Night owls get better with time. Early risers may be up and at it the moment they spring out of bed, but give it some time and late risers will catch up: About an hour and a half after waking up, both early birds and night owls are equally alert and attentive. And in the early evening — or about ten and a half hours after waking up — late risers get a boost of energy and alertness; research has shown that night owls performed better at a reaction-time task later in the day than their early-bird counterparts, who often fell into an afternoon-slump brain-fog.