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Column: Hours in bed, much of it sleeping

How many hours did you sleep last night? If you are a basic American, like me, you will probably grumble and mutter something disparaging about your kids before settling on a number somewhere in the 6-7ish hour range. In 2013, for instance, a Gallup poll reported that the average American slept 6.8 hours per night, with only a third hitting that golden 8-plus hour figure.

But this week the Bureau of Labor Statistics released its annual Time Use Survey, and it tells a different story. Among 11,000 Americans aged 15 and up, the average daily sleep total clocked in at 8 hours and 45 minutes, nearly two full hours higher than Gallup's number.

And while it's true that some groups get more sleep than others (looking at you, teenagers and old folks), that figure remains remarkably consistent across a variety of demographic categories. The only substantial difference is among the unemployed, who sleep for an hour longer than their employed counterparts. But no subgroup gets fewer than eight hours of sleep per night, according to the BLS, not even people with small kids. So what gives?

I called up Stephanie Denton, an economist at the BLS, who gave me some answers. To arrive at their sleep estimates, the BLS asks respondents what time they go to bed at night, and what time they get out of bed in the morning. But people do any number of, ahem, "nonsleep activities" in bed before they actually fall asleep at night, or after they wake up. These activities, which include things like personal grooming and reading in bed, are not reported separately in the BLS survey. "We may be capturing some of those activities right before they fall asleep," Denton told me.

Another crucial caveat is that the BLS sleep estimates also include time spent napping. "If people report sleeping in the middle of the day, that would include average sleep," Denton said.

Another difference between the BLS and Gallup numbers is how the question is asked. Gallup asks respondents to estimate how much sleep they get on average: "Usually, how many hours sleep do you get at night?" But the BLS survey asks people exactly when they were in bed on the previous day. (Editor's note: The disparity in hours of sleep reported to two reputable agencies is a good reminder to always check the original question and the primary source no matter the topic.)

So which number is more accurate? On the one hand, you can see how asking people the specifics of their sleep habits may yield more accurate responses than general estimates. Americans tend to see busyness and perpetual fatigue as virtues, and we may exaggerate our sleeplessness for interviewers as a result.

On the other hand, even factoring in naps and nonsleeping bedtime activities, I can't remember the last time I logged more than eight hours of sleep in a single day. And according to an informal poll of my colleagues, I'm not the only one. But this may say more about the particular demographics of my workspace than it does about anything else.

Christopher Ingraham is a data journalist focusing primarily on issues of politics, policy and economics. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.

© 2014 Washington Post

Column: Hours in bed, much of it sleeping 06/19/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 19, 2014 5:24pm]
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