It’s long been proven that people have different, natural “chronotypes.” Some people are night owls, meaning they have most of their stamina at night and therefore prefer to stay up late and sleep in, while others are early birds, meaning they feel most energetic in the morning and thereby prefer to get up early in the morning and go to sleep early in the evening.
In 2014, researchers at the University of Barcelona, Spain, found that night owls and early birds have widely different personality characteristics, especially when it came to well-being. Early birds tended to be much less prone to anxiety and depression than their night owl counterparts, who were also more likely to suffer from obesity, insomnia and ADHD, and were at greater risk for developing addictive behaviors, antisocial tendencies, and mental disorders.
The researchers posed two theories to explain the night owl’s predilection toward the dark side of human emotion. The first postulated that there was a link between the genes that make someone more active at night and those that lead to the development of various mood disorders.
But the second—and far more interesting—explanation became known as “social jet lag,” a term used to describe the feeling you have when your biological clock isn’t in sync with society’s schedule. In the nine-to-five world we live in, night owls are forced to constantly mess up their own body clocks, leading them to feel the way you do when you step off of the plane in a totally different time zone: tired, irritable, and generally out of sorts.
“Evening-type subjects are well-known social jet lag sufferers, as they must develop a behavioral pattern in order to adapt to the social schedule,” lead author Ana Adan said, adding that this constant struggle could lead to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and even suicide attempts.
Now, a new study has explored how precisely this social jet lag affects our ability to work.
Researchers at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago observed the daily rhythms and activities of 15,000 students over the course of two years, and found that when a student’s body clock wasn’t in sync with their daily class schedule, their academic performance suffered as a result.
Using login information from Northeastern Illinois University’s online learning management system servers between 2014 and 2016, they found that only 40% of students seemed to have schedules that were in sync with their body clocks. Four thousand of the students were early birds, and another 3,400 were night owls, dispelling the myth that night owls are, well, a rare bird.
While social jet lag affects early birds, night owls, and daytime finches (those who are at their most alert in the afternoon), night owls are hit especially hard.
“Because owls are later and classes tend to be earlier, this mismatch hits owls the hardest, but we see larks and finches taking later classes and also suffering from the mismatch,” study co-lead author Benjamin Smarr, a postdoctoral fellow who studies circadian rhythm at UC Berkeley, said in their college newsletter. “Different people really do have biologically diverse timing, so there isn’t a one-time-fits-all solution for education.”
While the findings can’t definitely conclude that social jet lag was the cause of poor performance, the study does help prove that some people really do just function better at night and aren’t just too lazy to get up early and that we should encourage administrators (and, perhaps, even employers) to take an employee’s body clock into account when administering tasks in order to get their peak performance.
“Rather than admonish late students to go to bed earlier, in conflict with their biological rhythms, we should work to individualize education so that learning and classes are structured to take advantage of knowing what time of day a given student will be most capable of learning,” Smarr said.
And if social jet lag is making you struggle with the midday slump, why not try a coffee nap?
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