The Unhappy Cost of Personal Space


When I was a child, it took me between two and three hours to fall asleep each night. This didn’t deeply trouble me. It was not pleasant, but I thought that it was normal. This was the obligation of all humans, to have minds that were still churning with thoughts when we first lay down and only calmed with time. It wasn’t until middle school when I read in some magazine that the average human falls asleep in seven minutes, that I realized something was wrong.

Throughout my life I’ve had a complicated relationship with sleep. During seasons of intense sports playing, there was little left at the end of the day. During fights with friends, I was too nervous to sleep a wink. Sometimes I would work until my eyelids would stay open no more. If I had an early flight to catch or an interview the next day, good luck. And then there is sometimes choice in the matter: at different times of my life I have thought of sleep as not that important: the adrenaline rush of accomplishment or romance could make me oblivious to the usual effects of sleep deprivation.

My inconsistent sleeping is no surprise; I’m not a researcher, but I would bet that child insomniacs rarely make sound-sleeping adults. But I have grown up in some ways: over the years I’ve developed a clear list of causes and consequences that affect my sleep– from physical activity to prayer and meditation, from socializing to phone proximity, from going through a bedtime routine to monitoring the content of what I read and watch right before I am supposed to sleep. Nowadays I prioritize and defend my sleep with far more vigor and respect than most people I know.

But perhaps the thing that has most surprised me is how emotional connection affects my sleep. When I was young, I slept in a first floor room at the far end of a big house. We lived in a very very safe neighborhood, and I was never in harm’s way, but at night, all things grow out of proportion, and my fears were wild and unhelpful. I felt that anyone could get to me through the five large windows in my room, and if someone did break in, no one would be able to help. When I got older, I moved even further away from the center of our house into the last room in the hallway, the old master bedroom of the house. I had been excited to have freedom and independence. It was a big room, with space to have friends over to hang out, to set up my art table, and to decorate the walls and play dress up in front of the mirror. But did it make me happy to have all that to myself?

As an adult, I gave up those rooms. Now, when I come back to visit, I stay in my father’s den, a small cave filled with old books and papers that’s just off the kitchen and next to the garage. It’s tiny, messy, and loud. Throughout the day people tramp in to borrow pens, grab stamps, or use the computer. At night you can hear everyone who grabs a late night snack in the kitchen, tries to do laundry, or opens the garage. But I have never slept so well in my parent’s home. Sometimes I wish that as a kid, I had realized that this proximity to my family’s love would have been far more important to me than the space and privacy I thought I wanted.

I have experienced this at other moments in my life. In a relationship, the nights I have felt most sure of the love of the man sleeping next to me are always the nights I have slept the soundest. When I have visited my friends in other parts of the world where space is not as cheap to come by as in an American suburb (in Mumbai for example), homes are much smaller places of great joy and connection– and often shared sleeping spaces. Sure, people get on each other’s nerves and get into each other’s business, and maybe it’s not as easy to keep a secret, but I’m not sure those are bad things. Patience, integrity, accountability… perhaps there are hidden benefits to sharing life with people.**

And some of the most amazing communities (often religious ones) I have ever been a part of and visited have made hospitality, accountability, and inclusion the values that guide their members’ actions. Not respecting privacy or privileging personal space.

So perhaps this is what Americans are slow to realize: we are always on a quest for more space, more privacy, and more independence. But maybe we are going after the wrong thing. Maybe those things don’t really make us happy. Maybe love matters more.

Maybe we are happiest and most at peace when we know we are not alone.



**Footnote: Are there objections? Clearly. I have a student who has not been able to sleep soundly in several months because the number of people crammed into her apartment is far beyond its capacity. And insomnia or its absence hardly qualifies as a scientific litmus test of human happiness.