Jobs and the Future of Work

A brief history of sleep

Arianna Huffington
Founder, Thrive Global
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Jobs and the Future of Work?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Neuroscience is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:


Sleep is having its moment in the sun — or, more appropriately, its moment in a darkened room, with blackout shades drawn, the temperature somewhere between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit, all smartphones and tablets banished from the room and maybe a white noise machine softly whirring in the corner.

You’d have to be severely sleep-deprived not to see evidence of the new sleep revolution. Everywhere you look there are articles about the benefits of sleep and the downsides of lack of sleep, tips on how to get more sleep and new devices and apps to help us disconnect and drift off to sleep and then monitor and track different stages of our sleep. Of course, those of us at HuffPost have been eager participants in this revolution, having passionately promoted the importance of sleep for over eight years now.

Though the need for sleep has been a constant throughout human history, how we feel about it has gone through dramatic changes over the years. We’re now in the process of renewing our estranged relationship, especially as science, in the last two decades or so, has validated much of the ancient wisdom about the importance of sleep.

Our modern definition of success is largely responsible for the devaluation of sleep; it’s also why sleep has come to be valued once again — but often for a limited set of reasons. As researchers continue to fill in the gaps about what exactly is going on biologically while we sleep, we need to also regain the deeper connection with ourselves that sleep can bring us every night.

Certainly that’s why sleep was revered by the ancients. From the beginning of recorded time, sleep and, along with it, dreams have played an important role in virtually every religion, usually as a sacred bridge to transcendence. In Genesis 28, God lays out his plan to Jacob in a dream:

[H]e took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the Lord stood above it, and said, I am the Lord God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed….

Going back to 800 B.C., the ancient Egyptians constructed temples to worship the goddess Isis. There congregants and priests would gather to interpret dreams. Greeks and Romans also worshiped gods associated with sleep, like Hypnos and his Roman equivalent Somnus.

As David Randall writes in his book Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep, the Greeks regarded sleep as a kind of middle state between life and death; indeed, the twin brother of Hypnos was Thanatos, the god of death. So perhaps my longtime fascination with sleep is in my Greek genes.

In fact, one of the first scientific theories about sleep dates from around 500 to 450 B.C. Alcmaeon of Croton, a Greek doctor and philosopher, postulated that sleep is the result of blood on the surface of the body withdrawing into the interior.

One hundred years later Aristotle wrote that sleep is “a seizure of the primary sense-organ, rendering it unable to actualize its powers, arising of necessity … for the sake of its conservation.” He was wrong about the seizure, but the conservation part is amazingly prescient, given what we now know about the restorative powers of sleep.

Dreams were, and continue to be, even more mysterious than sleep itself. It wasn’t until the Enlightenment that people began to interpret dreams for themselves, a power that had largely been reserved for the priestly class. In the early 17th century scientists Louis Ferdinand Alfred Maury and Marie-Jean-Léon Lecoq, Marquis d’Hervey de Saint-Denis, started the trend of educated people recording dreams in personal diaries.

Throughout this time sleep wasn’t seen as a single, uninterrupted stretch of night; it was regarded as being made up of two periods. One of the earliest references to the practice of segmented sleep can be found in The Odyssey, in which Homer refers to the “first sleep.” The intermission between the two periods of sleep was a time for people to quietly socialize, play music, relax, have sex or do nothing. And this was the case for centuries.

“It was highly valued in Medieval Europe as a time of calm relaxation, when thoughts and perceptions mingled with dreams,” writes Kat Duff in The Secret Life of Sleep.

This was swept away with the Industrial Revolution, aided by the introduction of artificial light. In 1807 London became the first city to light up its streets with gas lamps, and in 1879 Thomas Edison invented the first incandescent light bulb that could be used on a mass scale.

And the means for a much longer work day created a demand for a longer day, which quickly changed our attitudes toward sleep. No longer venerated and respected, sleep began to be viewed as wasted time, indulged in only by the willfully slothful. “Places that clung to their traditional sleeping schedules were quickly derided as backwaters filled with people who weren’t fit for the industrialized world,”writes David Randall.

When asked how many hours of sleep a night is good, Napoleon reportedly replied, “Six for a man, seven for a woman, eight for a fool.” Of course, if he’d upped his nightly total to the fool level, maybe things would have gone differently at Waterloo.

But as the work day became longer, for many even six hours of sleep became out of reach. In fact, the increasing length of the work day, and how it came at the expense of sleep, fueled the early labor movement. In 1817 the Welsh, socialist labor reformer Robert Owen campaigned for an eight-hour work day with the slogan“Eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest.”

And in 1867 another labor reformer described the working day like this:

It reduces the sound sleep needed for the restoration, reparation, refreshment of the bodily powers, to just so many hours of torpor as the revival of an organism, absolutely exhausted, renders essential. It is not the normal maintenance of the labor-power which is to determine the limits of the working-day; it is the greatest possible daily expenditure of labor-power, no matter how diseased, compulsory and painful it may be, which is to determine the limits of the laborers’ period of repose.

That was Karl Marx, in Das Kapital.

And it wasn’t until 1926 that Ford became the first major American company to introduce the eight-hour work day and the 40-hour work week. Of course, even with today’s renewed enthusiasm for sleep, the 40-hour work week remains an elusive goal for many.

But even as sleep came to be devalued, our fascination with dreams — what they mean and what their purpose is — continued. Dreams were increasingly decoupled from religion but still considered vital to our makeup as individuals and to our inner lives. In 1900 Sigmund Freud wrote The Interpretation of Dreams, in which he examined dreams as symbolic manifestations of repressed desires, fears and wishes that were too painful to deal with and were therefore relegated to our subconscious.

One of Freud’s students, Carl Jung, branched off, theorizing that dreams are not so much the result of repression but a manifestation of and a pathway to the collective unconscious shared by all people. I much prefer the Jungian model, and his autobiographical Memories, Dreams, Reflections, first published in 1963, remains one of my all-time favorite books.

Following Jung, scientists began pulling back the curtain on sleep and slowly disproving the idea that sleep is simply a time of inactivity. In 1925 Dr. Nathaniel Kleitman, considered to be the founder of sleep research, opened the world’s first sleep lab at the University of Chicago. In 1953 he and his graduate student, Eugene Aserinsky, discovered REM sleep.

In the 1970s came the publication of Sleep, the first peer-reviewed medical journal devoted to sleep, and by the ’90s there were over 200 sleep labs and centers to treat sleep disorders in the U.S.

But at the same time that we started learning more about sleep, we found it harder and harder to get enough of it, hence the advent of sleeping pills. The first one, barbital, was introduced in 1903 and quickly became a big hit; by 1930 over a billionsleeping pills were estimated to be swallowed each year in the U.S. The brand names have changed, but the popularity has only increased. Today around 60 million prescriptions for sleep aids are given out each year in the U.S., part of a $32-billion sleep industry.

Which brings us to today, with studies and discoveries about sleep coming so fast that it’s hard to keep up. We now know that sleep plays a huge role in memory consolidationthe ability to learn and carry out new and complex taskscreativityand emotional regulation. And we also know the enormous costs of sleep deprivation: that it’s associated with higher levels of stressanxiety and depressionand an increased risk for heart disease and diabetes; that it can leave us with the diminished cognitive capacity of someone legally drunk; that it can enable the formation of false memories; and that it can lead to lower levels of emotional intelligenceconfidence and self-esteem.

And we’re starting to see more and more awareness of these facts in the mainstream media. Sleep is now a topic as likely to be discussed in business magazines as it is in health and wellness publications. We now know that getting more sleep leads to fewer sick days as well as increased focus, energy andcreativity — and, as a result, a bigger paycheck! According to Matthew Gibson and Jeffrey Shrader, graduate researchers at the University of California, San Diego, an increase of just one hour of sleep can eventually boost wages by 16 percent, the same amount as a year of education.

All of which has combined to create a demand for sleep. And the market has responded. One of the more recent examples is the intensifying competition among hotels for association with a good night’s sleep in the minds of potential guests. The commercial come-on used to be about luxury amenities (the pool, the restaurants, the fitness center) or the social scene. Now it’s all about convincing the customer that he or she will leave feeling rested. Earlier this month, Westin announced a partnership with the wellness tech company Lark to create a new “Sleep Sensor Wearable-Lending program.” This entails allowing guests to try out the Lark Up Sleep Monitor, Silent Alarm Clock and Personal Sleep Coach. Westin is already known for its so-called Heavenly Bed, of which it has sold over 100,000.

And in October Crowne Plaza Hotels & Resorts announced the introduction of “a uniquely angled bed design” with a “padded, curved headboard,” which, along with insulated wall panels, “dramatically reduces noise levels.”

To produce the research and development needed to keep up with the competition in the sleep arms race, most of the big hotel companies now have their own labs to test new products and room designs. Starwood, the parent company of Westin, has an 11,000-square-foot lab in Connecticut where, earlier this year, they were testing how rooms with nature themes affect sleep. Marriott’s lab is in Maryland, where the company is testing four different bedding layouts.

In 2005 U.S. hotels spent $1.4 billion just on mattresses alone. And now 69 percentof them offer different kinds of pillows.

And it’s notable that these aren’t just tourist hotels; these are hotels favored by high-mileage business travelers. They’re not just marketing a room; they’re marketing a competitive business advantage. It’s a sign of just how deeply the idea of sleep as a performance tool has penetrated the public consciousness. And the science is incontrovertible: Sleep does help us perform better at work. But while that’s a great reason to take sleep more seriously in our lives, it’s by no means the only reason. We don’t want to go from a time in which we denigrated sleep in order to get ahead at work to a time in which we revere sleep in order to get ahead at work. Eve Fairbanks, writing in The New York Times Magazine, describes this new kind of sleep anxiety: “We want to sleep more now not because we value sleep more on its own terms, but because we are so fixated on productivity.” She continues, “Instead of being a strange, wild, mysterious Land of Nod whose purpose we don’t fully understand, sleep has been colonized by our ambition, becoming just another zone of the day to be farmed for productivity.”

It’s wonderful that we’re once again, like our ancestors, honoring sleep. But what we need to add to that mix of high-end beds, sleep monitors and white-noise machines is our ancestors’ sense of wonder and awe about sleep — that sense of letting go and giving up control, of a meandering journey that’s not about the top of the corporate ladder.

In fact, we have a huge advantage over our sleep-loving forebears: We can actually get some sleep! Even with all our distractions, time pressure, glowing screens and vibrating phones, compared with them we’re in the golden age of sleep. In ancient and medieval times whole families slept in the same room, often with their animals and without beds. It’s a far cry from the Heavenly Bed!

And now that we have the means to get, relative to most of human history, the most unprecedentedly blissful sleep ever, we should allow ourselves to enjoy it. We live in a time in which we’re hyperconnected with everybody in the world, often from the moment we wake up until the instant we drift off. Let’s savor and safeguard our realm of sleep, not just for its performance benefits but for the special way it allows us to connect with ourselves. During the daytime technology allows us to travel across distance and space, but during the nighttime our dreams allow us to travel across time, spanning and connecting different parts of ourselves, allowing our senses of intuition and wisdom to flourish.

So let’s renew our deeply intimate relationship with sleep, but in all its fullness. A love affair should be much, much more than a business partnership.

Published in collaboration with LinkedIn

Author: Arianna Huffington is President and Editor-in-Chief at The Huffington Post Media Group

Image: A girl is asleep in a classroom in Haiti. REUTERS/Kena Betancur

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

Related topics:
Jobs and the Future of WorkFinancial and Monetary SystemsBusiness
World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

Why companies who pay a living wage create wider societal benefits

Sanda Ojiambo

May 14, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum