There aren’t many of us, relatively speaking. I’ve only known one other person like me. Sure, college students cram during all-nighters and party into the wee hours, and maybe early 20-somethings go clubbing on the weekends until the bars close, but people who are actually wired to be alert most of the night and sleep until mid-morning are rare. Perhaps that “backward” inclination is a legacy from our early ancestors who set one or two clan members to watch for saber-toothed tiger attacks while the rest of the tribe slept.
Those of us who prefer to be active long after dark have been called “night owls” forever; the origin of the term is obscure, but perfectly understandable. Science has coined the term, “larks” for the vast majority of earth’s inhabitants, who rise early in the day and hit the sack within a few hours after sundown. It stands to reason that the world’s business is conducted during the daylight hours, as a 9:00 to 5:00 span of activity is most comfortable for most people.
What’s normal for so many humans, however, feels bizarre to those of us who are geared toward the night side. We look with horror at those who gleefully rise at 5:00 AM for an invigorating run. At that point, we may have only been in bed an hour or two, or at the extreme, may not have retired yet. We don’t hit our stride until 4:00 PM or later, and we’re wide awake at midnight. We actually watch the 2:00 AM offerings on the movie channels.
As is common with those who don’t fit in, night owls take a lot of flak from the “normal” world. We’ve been branded as lazy, irresponsible, and worse. Unless we want to work third shift at factories, or staff the overnight desks at hospitals and other 24-hour operations, we’re stuck with “regular business hours.” A typical office won’t make allowances for an employee who’d like to arrive at 11:00 AM or noon and work until 7:00 or 8:00 PM, with a 3:00 PM lunch hour. So we force ourselves to work or attend classes when everyone else does. Until my retirement earlier this year, I spent my entire life dreading getting up in the morning, even losing sleep because of that dread. When I’d hear the alarm go off at 7:00 AM, especially in the winter when it was still dark, my invariable reaction would include groans and a few heartfelt profanities. Levering myself out of bed would be a matter of sheer willpower. Unlike some of my kind, I was almost never late to work. I valued my job, and I was also proud of my attendance record. I trained myself to hit the ground running as soon as I reached my desk. Almost all night owls complain of early-morning fogginess, but with me, it was mind over matter. I preferred to tackle complicated number crunching and reports in the afternoon, but if I didn’t have a choice, I buckled down and did them first thing. All of the above to the detriment of my daily stress level, I have no doubt.
When I was in college, I had class from 8:00 AM until 3:00 PM, usually, then arrived home at 3:40, only to change clothes and head into work until sometimes 10:00 PM. I’d get back to the house about the time my parents were getting ready for bed. Not me! I’d get out my typewriter and a stack of paper and work on term papers and theses, occasionally until Dad got up again at 6:00 to go to work. Homework always took until long after midnight. In my case, though, that kind of schedule, particularly the late-night part, wasn’t a hardship. It was the early classes that killed me! On Fridays and Saturdays, Dad would get up in the middle of the night and come out to the living room and scold me for having the TV on half the night. After all, I was extravagantly using electricity in our frugal household, even if I was watching the movies in the dark.
A few years later, the favorite time of my entire career was the brief period when I had a shift in a bar from 4:00 PM to 4:00 AM. I’d go in and prep for the dinner hour, then serve as cook for the evening, after which I’d relieve the early bartender and work until closing. My duties required me to clean the place afterward (“shoestring budget” doesn’t describe the owner’s situation), and then I’d make the short drive home. I could sleep as late as I wanted and still have time to do things during the day. Perfect gig! I wish it could have been permanent.
Probably because night owls represent anomalies, science has taken an interest in our quotidian abnormality. I’ve seen a number of studies with fear-inducing headlines such as, “Staying Up Late Will Make You Fat!” and, “Studies Show Night Owls Are More Prone to _______,” you name it: heart problems, depression, insomnia, and any number of other ills. Here’s the thing, though — those studies were done on people whose normal biorhythms peak at night, but who force themselves into daytime parameters. In other words, people who fight their natural inclinations for decades, as I did. I haven’t seen a study documenting medical outcomes for night owls who live their lives the way they prefer to.
There also exists a body of research generated from the attempt to “retrain” night owls to be larks. So far, the universal routine involves instructing night owls to begin gradually going to bed earlier and then getting up earlier. Over a period of months, the night people are theoretically turned into day people. From my reading, I understand that retooling a person’s lifelong hardwiring results in many sleepless nights and frustration until the desired result is achieved. The catch is that, if a retrained person just once stays up late, all of the progress evaporates literally overnight, and the process must begin again. It’s a double whammy: there’s no sleeping in even on weekends. It hardly seems worth the effort, unless one desires above everything else to be in sync with the “normals” of the world.
My personal experience along those lines is that I can go to bed at 10:00 PM with the best of intentions, and then lie there until midnight or after until falling asleep. I’ve tried exhausting myself before turning in early, which does let me nod off quickly, but then I’m awake two hours later and only fall back asleep about 15 minutes before the alarm goes off. For me, it’s never been any use, try to conform as I might. My husband is a devoted lark, and I’ve thought of trying to change my wakeful hours to conform with his, but again, it’s a losing battle. Especially now that I’ve retired, I’ve resigned myself to getting up long after he does and trundling up to bed many hours after he goes to sleep.
The perennial stigma attached to us night people is unjustified; we’re as productive as our day-loving counterparts, just during a different timeframe. It’s no coincidence that legendary vampires come out at dusk and disappear at dawn; nighttime bad, daytime good. I think it’s more fun to own the label, and now that I don’t have to crawl out of bed before the sun comes up, I’m having a great time and have no plans to change. Plus which, now nobody can tell me not to watch the late, late show!