Let me guess, you have a sleep problem. Someone once told you that you should be getting around eight hours a night, but thanks to your work, your kids, and your screens, you're probably getting nowhere near that.

And let me also guess that you're worried about it. Lack of sleep causes serious health problems, as well as significantly denting your mental performance, article after article warns. Read them all and you'd have to conclude that sleeplessness is some sort of dread modern plague.

But what if all this guilt and handwringing were really for nothing? What if there wasn't all that much wrong with your six or so hours a night after all?

You sleep like your ancestors

That's the tantalizing suggestion of a fascinating new study, which looks at the sleep habits of traditional hunter-gatherer societies in Bolivia, Namibia, and Tanzania. Free of the temptations of just one more episode of Breaking Bad (or even the luxury of an electric light bulb), you'd think people in these tribal societies would be paragons of adequate sleep, conking out for way longer each night than do we harried denizens of the modern world.

But nope. "People in all three groups slept an average of just under 6.5 hours a night," U.S. News reports. "They typically go to sleep about three hours after the sun goes down (even though they don't have electric lights), wake up before sunrise, and don't take regular naps, the study found. All of that is similar to the sleep habits of people in modern societies."

The problem is your expectations, not your sleep

So basically, you get just as much sleep as your ancestors did, which strongly suggests that the problem isn't our lifestyle, it's our expectations. "The short sleep in these populations challenges the belief that sleep has been greatly reduced in the 'modern world,'" says researcher Jerome Siegel.

He's not the only one who is making the argument that our expectations for a solid seven or eight hours of uninterrupted shut-eye a night is an unrealistic fantasy that makes those who can't attain it unnecessarily stressed.

In Salon, for example, Lynne Stuart Parramore recounted her own struggles to make her sleep conform to this eight-hour ideal. What finally saved her from her anxiety wasn't a better night's rest, it was learning that people aren't necessarily programmed to sleep like hibernating bears. Her research into the subject "revealed something quite amazing: Humans did not evolve to sleep through the night in one solid chunk. Until very recently, they slept in two stages," she writes.

She concludes: "We have been told over and over that the eight-hour sleep is ideal. But in many cases, our bodies have been telling us something else. Since our collective memory has been erased, anxiety about nighttime wakefulness has kept us up even longer, and our eight-hour sleep mandate may have made us more prone to stress."

Taken together, these two strands of research are a useful counterpoint to the scaremongering about our modern lifestyle and it's supposed effects on our sleep. While science and personal experience both indicate that dragging yourself around exhausted all day is a terrible idea, the notion that there is some single sleep pattern you need to conform to in order to be healthy might need a rethink.

The takeaway could simply be this: Listen to your body. If you feel good but your sleep is "weird" compared to the eight-hours-straight orthodoxy, worry less. There's good evidence out there that healthy sleep looks more varied than we've been told.

Do you get the recommended eight-or-so hours straight a night? Let us know in the comments.

Published on: Oct 29, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.