Why We Need Winter

Someone asked me recently, how do you stay productive and active in winter, when it’s so tempting to just hibernate? My first thought was, what’s wrong with hibernating? Which reminded me of one of the best books I’ve read this year, Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. Walker points out that sleep is that it’s the only human drive that we rebel against. We understand and obey our hunger, thirst, and most definitely the imperative to procreate. But sleep? We routinely fight against it. We drink coffee, stay up late, light up our homes with electricity, stare at LED screens, and basically cheat sleep to get more done, watch one more episode, chat with just one more person, and just, puzzlingly, resist going to bed. From a very early age, we just don’t want to go to bed. Now we even justify it with a name: FOMO.

And yet, every species studied sleeps. When you stop to think about it (and Walker has done a lot of thinking on the matter), sleep seems foolish. As Walker points out, it’s hard to imagine the utility of sleep when, after all, when we are asleep, we cannot find food, cannot work, cannot nurture and protect our young, and cannot find a mate and reproduce. And most worrying of all, when we are asleep, we are vulnerable to predators.

But Walker has answers. Tons of them. As he meticulously shows, despite the apparent dangers we risk being sleep, there are tremendous and essential benefits.

So, back to winter. Winter is the sleep of the year. And, not surprisingly, we fight against winter the way we fight against sleep. All of our the festivals celebrate light, we frantically prepare for holidays, launch ourselves into endless rounds of socializing, traveling and visiting, braving the crowds to buy presents, and madly trying to tick off every last thing on our to-do list as we near the finish line of the year. Consider this: last year Americans left 705 million vacation days unused. At the same time, 66% of workers complained that they lacked work-life balance. Just like resisting sleep, we struggle against the imperative to take time off, to go inward, and dwell (metaphorically) in the darkness.

What we miss is that this time of darkness (or, just a time of stopping) is good. It’s good for resting. It’s good for reflection, And it’s necessary for rejuvenation. Winter is when fields lie fallow. We can’t always be in a production mode, in giving out energy, thought, effort. Like we need sleep, we need time to take in, absorb, and, reflect. Fields need to lie fallow; the brain and body need sleep. And humans need a winter, [and in the absence of winter, a rainy season will do].

So, whatever you do at this time of year, whether it is indeed the dark of winter, or summertime at a beach down under, may you enjoy a bit of time to stop, reflect, and rejuvenate.

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