A New Movement Wants to Change How You Think About Sleep

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Go the f*ck to sleep.
Go the f*ck to sleep.Photo: Paramount Pictures

If your heart is currently beating, chances are you’ve experienced a night of restless sleep at least once in your life. If you have a smartphone and a laptop, the chances are even higher, and if you make very little money and work a lot, you’ve likely resigned yourself to three solid hours of sleep a night. On a good night. On your once-in-ten-years vacation.

Sleep has become something of a forgotten friend, even in the age of attention toward wellness and self-care and chicory-root kefir smoothies. While many of us grew up with encouragement to “get a good night’s sleep” — before tests, job interviews, flights — the real world is a less forgiving place than the land of nod. Working overtime, social calendars, doctor’s appointments and attempting to fight the patriarchy all cut into that precious time we enjoy on our pillows, both in REM sleep and plain old rest.

“A well-rested society is a healthier, more productive society,” Sean Monahan, member of K-Hole, the art collective who brought us normcore barely two years ago, said in an email. Monahan is the force behind a trend called Slowave, which he wrote about extensively (in partnership with mattress company Casper) on a site called SleepSleepSleepSleep. Slowave is a word-of-mouth movement that intends to rebrand sleep as “an essential experience rather than a dead loss.” Slowave is an opportunity to redefine and recalibrate the way we see sleep. Slowave wants to take back and demand more bedtime.

Monahan came to the idea as a result of his interest in the trend of polyphasic sleep, in which people sleep “in a series of short naps dispersed throughout the day, rather than one long spell at night.” “Slowave came out of a search for another answer to the question: What is the future of sleep?” he says. “We’ve tried eliminating sleep through drugs, hacking sleep through behavior modification regimens, and optimizing sleep through data collection, but all these responses seemed to presume that sleep itself was a problem.” People have begun treating sleep like a pest or an unnecessary nuisance; if only we could truly “hack” it to our whims, we could be free of it. Then we could optimize our daily lives, running on how ever many hours of dozing we deem absolutely necessary. Four? Three? Two? Sleep is the biggest thing getting in the way of pure, unadulterated productivity, after all.

So Slowave’s commitment to getting a good night’s rest feels like its own kind of radical act. When we’re all working so hard to try to reduce our need for sleep in order to stay more connected, be more active, live life more fully, the person who revels in a solid ten hours actually seems kind of punk. That person is a disciple of Slowave.

The luxury of sleep was not lost on Monahan as he sought a unified vision for Slowave. “There are clear class and race dynamics to who gets the most sleep in the United States, with wealthier, whiter individuals unsurprisingly landing at the top of the heap, and more marginalized communities landing near the bottom,” he says, pointing to a groundbreaking CDC study published this year. “To sleep well, you need time and control.” These are luxuries rarely afforded to economically underserved people, which Monahan hopes to change. “The negative impacts on public health and worker productivity is enough to convince even the most cold-blooded capitalists that we need to reprioritize sleep on a societal level,” he says.

Arianna Huffington is ostensibly already onboard with the Slowave movement. In April, she’s releasing her next guide to the good life, The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time. “We promote just about everything to make us healthier and make us more potent,” she said recently, “but it’s something in our hands that we are in control of that can do these things. Sex is free, sleep is free.” Does Huffington intend to wield her immense power to encourage her employees to get deeper, better sleep while paying them the same salaries? We’ll see about that.

But Slowave is only the start of a small, radical revolution. Monahan, for one, insists that getting more sleep should not be treated as a means to an end. The benefits of seeing sleep as a joy rather than a burden can include everything from better sex to a happier life to clearer skin, and Monahan wants the Slowave movement to be more than just a way to make us work more efficiently at our jobs. “Slowave is a partial rejection of only seeing sleep through an economic lens,” he says. “For too long, we’ve only been able to think of sleep as an input to productivity or an output of purchasing power (i.e. a well-deserved luxury purchase). We can’t artificially segment our lives anymore. And we can’t oversimplify complex problems.” As Monahan points out, using our natural sleep schedules to inform our own happiness and workflow is “something artists and writers have known for a long time, hence the propensity to work very late at night or very early in the morning.”

So is this the end of Instagram-scrolling as sheep-counting and power-napping for efficiency’s sake? Only if we actually make an effort. “The difficult part isn’t so much spreading awareness about how to sleep better,” Monahan says; at this point, we’re all are well aware of the negative effects of screen time in bed. “It’s convincing people to make the effort to improve their sleep.”