As I write this, I'm operating on about three hours sleep. My flight last night from Newark to Fort Lauderdale was delayed twice for unexplained reasons and by the time I got home, frustrated and exhausted, I was so tired I couldn't fall asleep. After lots of tossing and turning, I finally dozed off only to be yanked out of sleep by an angry alarm clock a few hours later.

Have you ever had trouble falling asleep? If so, you're not alone.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 50 million to 70 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder. Sleep troubles are especially common in older adults and involve a multitude of problems including difficulties falling or staying asleep, sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome.

With so many sleep deprived Americans among us, it's no surprise that sleep deprivation is one of the biggest drains on business today. On the job, lack of sleep contributes to loss of productivity, a lack of focus, careless and costly mistakes, mediocre performance and disengagement. On a personal level, sleep deprivation can lead to weight gain, irritability, lethargy and depression. Stress and poor "sleep hygiene" are among the leading causes of insomnia.

But a recent study published in Sleep Science and Practice found that getting a good night's sleep might have something to do with how much meaning and purpose you feel you have in your life. 

Researchers Arlener Turner, Christine Smith and Jason Ong of the Northwestern University School of Medicine found that people who reported having a greater sense of purpose in life also reported getting better sleep -- even when taking into account factors including age, gender, race and level of education.

Eight-hundred and twenty-five Americans were asked to rate the quality of their sleep and their sense of purpose in life by responding to statements like "Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them." (Purpose in life, researchers say, is generally defined as "one's sense of meaning and directedness in his/her life, essentially having aspirations and goals for the future and feeling that experiences in life are meaningful.")

As it turns out, the participants who reported having higher purpose in their lives experienced less bodily movement while asleep, an indication of a more restful night.

"People who have a greater sense of purpose also tend to have better physical and mental health, which in turn explains their higher quality sleep," writes Daisy Grewal for Scientific America.

The Northwestern study is the first of its kind to find a strong link between the quality of a person's sleep and the quality of their lives -- and given the prevalence of sleeplessness in America, anything that offers insight into the problem (or potential treatments) is worth certainly exploring.

"Perhaps developing a sense of purpose in life could be as effective at improving sleep as following healthy habits, such as limiting coffee," Grewal writes.

That's something worth thinking about. So the next time I find myself stuck in an airport, exhausted and eager to get home, I'll just remind myself how full of purpose my life really is. Chances are, I'll sleep like a baby.

Published on: Jan 31, 2018