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Is the West sleeping on naps?

On international conceptions of napping.

Image credit: Healthline.

As the unrelenting heat of the summer bears down, a sense of mid-afternoon tiredness begins to set in. Your eyes are weary, brain is lagging and fatigue kicks in. Maybe another coffee will help? Perhaps a quick stretch? Or dare I suggest—a nap?

Naps tend to be one of two things. Either they’re short, rejuvenating periods of rest or they’re long, unregulated slumbers that leave you losing all sense of time and feeling drowsier than you were to begin with.

I’d wager that most students experience more of the latter.  

Nevertheless, naps aren’t particularly valued as routine practice in Western lifestyles. American hustle culture encourages people to adhere to strict sleep schedules and diligently push through the day with whatever energy they can muster—perhaps compensating with a cup, or five, of coffee. The ‘you snooze, you lose’ mentality seems to pervade modern life.

Granted, we have seen the occasional study into the benefits of ‘segmented sleep’, power naps, and even the occasional clickbait YouTube experiment asking: “Is Napping Good for You?.” Similarly, within the ongoing innovation of ‘modern’ workplaces like Google and Facebook (is it Meta now?), there appears to be an increasing trend of providing designated nap spaces for their contribution to employee productivity. I can almost confidently state this is why most people want to work at Google — never mind the pay.

Beyond the American or Australian context, naps are perceived quite differently in other areas of the world stretching from Spain to East Asia. In these regions, naps are held in high regard due to their rejuvenating capabilities and long-term health benefits. Rather than being a sporadic occurrence or infrequent fad, naps are deliberate and appreciated.

Many are aware of the Spanish ‘siesta’, referring to the practice of taking a nap around the afternoon. In certain regions, activity on the streets grinds to a halt as people take the opportunity to rest indoors and public venues shutter in the interim. Not only does this practice divide the working day, but it also offers longer lunch breaks and respite from the summer heat.

Weather, particularly the taxing nature of humidity, seems to be a common factor among cultures that have historically valued the midday nap.

I’m personally familiar with the South Asian context whereby the sweltering heat of the sun—mitigated by the blasting chill of the A/C—lends itself to the practice of a midday nap amongst elders and children. Adults tend to be busier with work, but if you need a nap, it’s not looked down upon. Even rickshaw pullers, trudging through narrow alleys and crowded streets, take moments to nap between customers. 

Naturally, this complements the tendency amongst Asian cities to stay up later and close business after sunset hours—starkly contrasting the Australian context where virtually nothing stays open past 5PM.

It is worth noting that the Spanish siesta has become increasingly rare over time. Due to urbanisation and the eminence of modern workplace culture, many adults simply cannot accommodate the tradition. In 2017, the BBC reported that nearly 60% of Spaniards “never have a siesta,” and approximately 18% partake in the custom occasionally. In light of increasing joblessness and precarious employment, recent trends indicate that many Spaniards spend longer hours at work than some of their European counterparts. Interestingly, according to Babbel Magazine, there is reason to believe that the ‘siesta stereotype’ can be partly attributed to mid-1900’s propaganda under the Franco regime that sought to popularise Spain in the eyes of tourists.

Despite divergent customs around naps across the globe, it seems that nap culture has become increasingly difficult to reconcile with the demands of modern-day capitalism.

Perhaps Japanese inemuri culture can counter this. Roughly meaning “being present while asleep”, the practice of inemuri is perceived as a marker of diligence — of restoring one’s energy so that they may be fully present for work and other activities. Contrary to other customs, short naps can occur at relatively any time or place — whether it’s your workbench, the subway or school. Simply put, you rest so that you can function better in everyday life.  

As the world gets less and less sleep, it almost seems odd that naps aren’t considered the answer. Recent studies indicate that around 40% of Australians struggle to achieve a standard 7-9 hours of sleep, while 59.4% experience frequent difficulty in falling asleep. The ramifications of this are not only mental, affecting cognitive ability and attention; but also physical,with direct implications for cardiovascular health. 

As expressed by Dr Brigette Steger, “seemingly natural events” like sleep “reveal essential structures and values of a society.” Conversations on nap culture prompt a deeper discussion of ideas around productivity in the modern age. So long as choices can be justified as productive, they merit a positive connotation. See hustle culture: ‘Napping to power through 6 hours of lectures? Good for you!.’ 

Whether they’re naps or hobbies undertaken for leisure, if they’re not justifiable towards some productive goal, the positive connotation is lost and there’s added guilt. 

Perhaps it’s time to decouple the association of naps with laziness. Although the custom of inemuri demonstrates that naps can be justified for efficiency, it’s worth considering how much we value them when they’re compensating for severe fatigue or overtime. Whether it’s the practice of the midday nap or napping when tired, the act of rest should be guilt-free. 

To rest is ultimately innate to being human and living a fulfilling life, and we should feel comfortable prioritising our health and body for its own sake.

Note: The author of this piece took a nap while writing this.

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