New research highlights how sleep benefits our social life.
Sleep is clearly important for our health, helping our bodies function at their best. It’s also key to our productivity, helping us stay fresh and focused the following day. But does getting a good night’s sleep affect our relationships, too?
In line with my own experiences, some relatively new research suggests that sleep does have positive social consequences. What we’re learning about the connection between sleep, our brains, and our social selves offers yet another reason to safeguard your sleep.
SLEEP HELPS US APPROACH OTHERS AND AVOID LONELINESS
It’s been long known that loneliness is associated with poor sleep. But is the opposite true? Can poor sleep lead to loneliness?
In a recent study, researchers scanned people’s brains after they slept normally or had a night of sleep deprivation to see how they reacted to strangers. Participants were asked to watch videos of a stranger approaching them from a distance and to push a button when they felt the stranger was too close, while the researchers monitored what was happening in their brains.
SLEEP HELPS US EMPATHISE WITH OTHERS
Emotional empathy is our ability to feel what another person is feeling. So, if my friend is feeling sad, her sadness resonates with me to some extent, helping me to care about how she is doing.
But, when we sleep poorly, the parts of our brain devoted to emotional empathy don’t function as well, according to one recent study.
In the study, college-aged participants kept track of their sleep quality for two weeks and then performed a task while having their brains scanned. The task involved viewing photos of people with different expressions — some neutral, some distressed.
Participants were asked to note how concerned they were about the people depicted, and the researchers measured differences in how they responded to distressed versus not distressed people to arrive at an empathy score. The researchers also recorded their brain activity patterns while viewing the different photos, to see how this might correspond to feelings of empathy.
SLEEP HELPS US TO BE LESS ANGRY AND AGRESSIVE
A lack of sleep certainly makes me more irritable. But could it cause you to be angrier or more aggressive?A recent study suggests yes. Participants who were randomly assigned to maintain or restrict their sleep over two days were then asked to do a difficult task while listening to very aversive noise, bound to make them irritated.
Those who’d restricted their sleep became much angrier during the task and didn’t adapt well to the noise — meaning, they didn’t cease to be bothered by it over time — compared to those who’d had normal sleep.
SLEEP MAY HELP US LESS PREJUDICED TOWARD OTHERS
Does sleep affect how prejudiced we are? This may seem far-fetched, but when you think of the mental processes involved in interacting with those who are different from us — and how those processes, in turn, are affected by a lack of sleep — it makes more sense.
Certainly, being more willing to approach others, more empathic, or less prone to anger could all have an impact on prejudice. After all, these factors have all been tied to less discrimination in other studies.
Additionally, research suggests we’re less prone to feeling rejected when we sleep better. That means that if we fear others may not like us — a common problem to overcome in cross-group interactions — we might be less likely to see rejection where there is none, as long as we get enough sleep.
Of course, it’s not only true that sleep has an effect on our relationships. Our relationships can affect our sleep, too. If we’re fighting with our loved ones, facing discrimination, or feeling rejected, our sleep will likely be worse. That means that sleep problems can become cyclical, with social problems causing poor sleep and vice versa.
Luckily, we can break that cycle by getting enough sleep regularly. And, since there are all kinds of evidence-based tips out there for getting a good night’s sleep, it’s at least worth trying to do so. After all, we could all use people in our lives who are better rested and, as a result, more willing to connect in compassionate ways.