Sleep & Happiness

When I go to bed happy and feel happy even when I wake up and would rather be sleeping, I sleep better. On the other hand, the more angry I get about my lack of sleep or my life circumstances, the worse I sleep.

I find that my happiness corresponds almost exactly with my competence and progress in life. When I break something significant or lose something or damage something or someone in my carelessness, I experience a substantial decrease in my happiness that can last for weeks. On the other hand, when I save more money than I spend, when I take care of aches and pains and other problems, when I keep my stuff clean, organized and in good working order, when I connect with people I like, when I stay appropriate and realistic in various social interactions, when I ask for help when appropriate, when I see that I am contributing to the happiness of others, I feel happy.

Carelessness is the single biggest cause of my unhappiness so for me to build a life that works, I have to consistently take care with everything that is important to me including people, finances, time, and things.


Sleep, although a vital aspect of human functioning, has received scant attention in happiness research. This research examines the effect of sleep quality on life satisfaction, and one possible mechanism that bridges the two. One cognitive factor that might tie the relationship between sleep and life satisfaction is a belief about the (in) finite nature of happiness (zero-sum belief about happiness; ZBH), a mindset that occurs more under conditions of scarcity. Given the interconnections among experiences prompted by various types of scarcity (e.g., financial and calorie), we predicted that deprived cognitive resource caused by poor sleep may activate the ZBH, thereby hurting one’s life satisfaction. As expected, we found that sleep quality predicted the participants’ life satisfaction, even controlling for baseline variables. More importantly, this relationship was partially mediated by ZBH. This study opens interesting questions on a relatively unexamined role of non-social predictors, such as sleep, in well-being.

As highly social beings, humans are wired to connect with others. Not surprisingly, social experience is one of the most heavily studied topics in happiness research (Diener and Seligman, 2002; Diener et al., 2018). However, no human beings are constantly with others. For example, the average person spends about one third of her time not interacting with others, sleeping. Although a significant portion of time is spent on sleeping, few have examined how this experience relates to happiness (however, see Paunio et al., 2008; Sonnentag et al., 2008; Steptoe et al., 2008). The purpose of this study is to verify the association between sleep and life satisfaction, and investigate one possible cognitive belief that may bridge the two.

Various personal beliefs about happiness affect the actual level of happiness experienced by the person. For instance, those who consider happiness as more relational (Bojanowska and Zalewska, 2016; Shin et al., 2018), controllable (Joshanloo, 2017), and incremental (Tamir et al., 2007) are happier than others. Here we focused on a potentially important, yet unexamined mediating belief – whether happiness exists as a zero-sum state (zero-sum belief about happiness; ZBH). Zero-sum beliefs in general (cf. Von Neumann and Morgenstern, 1944) are based on the assumption that a finite amount of goods exists in the world, in which one’s gain is possible only at the expense of others. Viewed in this way, those with high ZBH are presumed to consider the amount of happiness as fixed (vs. unlimited), amongst people (i.e., if someone gets happier, somebody else might become less happy) as well as across time (i.e., if one is happy now, he or she might become less happy in the future). Such zero-sum beliefs about happiness predict low well-being (Koo and Suh, 2007; Różycka-Tran et al., 2015).

One condition that activates such zero-sum thinking is resource scarcity (Różycka-Tran et al., 2015). The authors noted that resource-deprived mindset may lead individuals to perceive the world as competitive, becoming more prone to zero-sum beliefs. Although scarcity arises in various domains (e.g., financial and calorie), there is a common overlap among the diverse experiences of scarcity (Muraven and Baumeister, 2000; Briers et al., 2006). Sleep replenishes depleted resource (Saper et al., 2005). Conversely, impaired sleep may trigger a sense of scarcity (especially, cognitive), leading people to perceive happiness more in a zero-sum manner. In other words, ZBH would be driven in part by low sleep quality and, consequently lead to a temporary drop in life satisfaction…

A significant portion of daily time is spent on sleep. Yet, much remains to be known about how sleep relates to life satisfaction. In this research, we found that those who sleep well are more satisfied with life, controlling for individual characteristics such as personality. Although social relationships are essential for well-being (Diener and Seligman, 2002; Sandstrom and Dunn, 2014), social activity is costly and energy-consuming (Baumeister et al., 2000). This is perhaps why people need a certain amount of time alone, which serves a restorative function (Coplan and Bowker, 2014). Sleep, although far less studied than social experiences, needs more research attention in future happiness research.

More research is needed to clarify how sleep predicts life satisfaction, but we uncovered one possibility. Those who sleep poorly were more likely to view happiness as a zero-sum game. A zero-sum mindset leads people to engage in more social comparison and savor positive experiences less, which eventually lead to less happiness (Koo and Suh, 2007). As many societies become more competitive and market-oriented, sleep is easily regarded as a waste of time (and money). However, sacrificed sleep may create a vicious cycle of making the world appear as a zero-sum competition, which aggravates interpersonal stress. Increasing public awareness of the importance of sleep might have greater societal benefits than most assume.

The link between sleep quality and life satisfaction highlighted in this paper might be bidirectional. A satisfied mindset about life may increase sleep quality, but as our findings imply, a good sleep may also affect how positively one evaluates his/her life. More conclusive statement about causal direction should be derived from additional longitudinal work. One notable finding is that the zero-sum belief mediates sleep quality and life satisfaction, even controlling for traits known to strongly influence happiness (e.g., neuroticism). It implies that believing happiness as a fixed, predetermined experience is psychologically deflating, above and beyond the predisposition to experience negative affect. Finally, replicating current finding with more sophisticated sleep measures (e.g., polysomnography) and with diverse samples will be desirable.

What constitutes a good life? Many people in modern society may shove a “good sleep” below other priorities, such as high status or income. However, our study suggests that this inconspicuous daily routine not only restores the body, but also elevates the mind’s view of life.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been noted in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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