I’ve thought of myself as a morning person since I was a little kid, when I’d wake up before my parents to furtively watch TV, in defiance of their strict limits on my media consumption. As I got older, I maintained my morning person status with workouts at dawn, 6 a.m. flights and the occasional wake-and-bake session. Unsurprisingly, all of this went straight to shit when the pandemic hit. I can workout whenever I want, there are no flights to catch and the time for weed and television is endless.
With nowhere to go and nothing to do other than risk contracting the coronavirus, my schedule is more flexible than ever, and the thrill of being a morning person is gone. After all, what is there to wake up to?
As such, my edge as an early riser has dulled as I’ve started sleeping in later and later. What first felt like a symptom of depression now seems like a reasonable new schedule — it certainly beats being an early bird who has to hang out in their cage alone until there’s a vaccine.
Moreover, it’s likely that I was never a morning person or a night person to begin with, but a tired person trying to force myself to fall into one of two camps, says Samuel Jones, a geneticist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki. We all have our own chronotype, an individual circadian rhythm or internal clock that’s determined by a combination of genetics, age, gender, light exposure and lifestyle. For instance, most men have circadian rhythms that make them more awake at night, whereas women are more awake in the morning. Not to mention, as we get older, all of our clocks work less consistently, which is why we sleep worse, contributing to our overall cognitive decline.
Our circadian rhythms are crucial for our mental and physical health because they time hormonal releases that make us tired, hungry and stressed. Morning people and night owls simply represent extreme ends of the spectrum. “Many studies focus on morning and evening people, but in reality, it’s a continuous distribution from extreme morningness to extreme eveningness,” Jones tells me. “Most people lie somewhere in between the two.”
Part of the reason why morning and night people get a disproportionate amount of attention is that they’re easier to study. Mining data from 23andMe and the U.K. Biobank, which includes nearly 700,000 people, Jones and his colleagues have been able to research more than 300 genetic variants that could influence our sleeping habits. But since those data sets only ask participants to self-report if they’re morning or evening people, circadian rhythms are mostly understood in such binary terms. That’s why, in a follow-up study, Jones and his team looked at the midpoint of a sleep cycle instead, and when people experience the most minimal movement during sleep. From this, he tells me, “we see a much more normal distribution of individuals.”
Even if I were a morning person naturally, I have no reason to be smug about it anymore, and that was honestly the best part. “The pandemic is decreasing the advantage that morning people have had,” Camilla Kring explains. She’s the founder of The B-Society, an international organization that advocates for later school and work start times, and for the rights of night owls, or “B-persons,” more generally. While many studies have found that people who get up early tend to be more successful, Kring and other activists argue that this is a result of society being scheduled in morning people’s favor. But as many companies transition to a remote environment, the processes and characteristics of individual work have become less visible. “This means that a large percentage of work is now independent of time and place,” Kring says. “It’s no longer necessary for the majority of the population to work between 9 and 5.”
The main consequence of forcing yourself to be a morning person when you’re not is something researchers refer to as “social jetlag.” It occurs when non-morning people are forced to adapt to a morning person schedule and are left to catch up on sleep on days off. It’s correlated with more fatigue, moodiness and worse health overall (e.g., increased risk for heart disease).
In fairness, other studies suggest a similarly increased risk for weight problems and mental illnesses like schizophrenia among night owls, but Jones notes that this data has a lot of limitations — namely, it’s hard to study because scientists cannot ethically manipulate participants’ sleep to see if it causes harm. Instead, they have to extrapolate from studies on night-shift workers, who are prone to higher rates of diabetes, smoking and many other negative health outcomes that are difficult to fully control for.
We have, however, been able to determine that — at absolute most — 21 percent of our chronotypes are determined by genetics (and Jones’ findings suggest that number is closer to 13.7 percent). That means at least 79 percent of our chronotype can be altered — for example, you can reset your circadian rhythm by reducing your screen time, light exposure and/or caffeine intake in the evening. There are a number of apps such as f.lux that can automatically set the light of electronic devices to help regulate your sleep patterns as well.
As for me, I’m far from the only morning person jumping the early bird ship. Jones cites a recent study that reveals people are going to bed later during the pandemic, sleeping in later and sleeping more overall on weekdays. This could be a positive sign that non-morning people have finally had the freedom to play to their internal clocks. “We’re likely to see people sleeping at times and for durations that feel more natural without the typical social constraints of commuting and working at the workplace,” Jones speculates.
And when up to 70 percent of Americans have reported not getting enough sleep prior to the pandemic, more rest should mostly be a good thing. Still, it could also indicate increased psychological suffering, because when people are in a state of trauma, we need more sleep to feel rested. Given the state of the world, the latter is a valid concern, but that doesn’t mean that plenty of people aren’t also adjusting to healthier sleeping habits, too. “I’d imagine that both of these things are at play,” Jones says.
Whether or not I was ever truly a morning person — or just a little kid trying to watch TV — remains a mystery, as does whether or not my increased rest is healthy for me. One thing is for sure, though: I’ll definitely be sleeping on it.