If you’re reading this newsletter from Europe, your circadian rhythm is perhaps a little skewed today. The clocks say one thing, but your body is an hour out.
The arrival of daylight saving time — introduced as a nationwide policy for the first time in 1916, initially by Germany and Austria and soon followed by a string of European nations (and Tasmania) — brings another biannual ritual: the debate over whether we should bother changing the clocks in the first place.
Americans, who “sprang forward” a couple of weeks ago, are now one step closer to abolishing the practice. The passage of a bill in the Senate to make daylight saving time a year-round thing surprised everyone, because no one expected the Senate to act so quickly or, indeed, at all, admits Jonathan Bernstein. It now goes to the House of Representatives, where — due to the surprise nature of the whole affair — no one really knows what will happen.
A plurality of people in both the US (and Europe) are keen to quit changing the clocks and disrupting precious sleep patterns.
But while we can all agree that moving backward and forward in time twice a year is an absolute pain — though I have to admit begrudging spring’s forward move far more than the quite pleasant backward turn in fall — there’s a dilemma. Which way to shift?
Most of those polled in the YouGov survey above would opt for permanent DST. DST fans point to long evenings, increased road safety and fewer robberies. Perhaps there’s a benefit for Main Street, too: A 2016 study by JPMorgan compared Los Angeles, a city that does observe DST, and Phoenix, a city that doesn’t. The study found that, in the 30 days after the clocks go forward in Los Angeles, daily credit- and debit-card spending increases as people are encouraged to enjoy the long periods of sunlight after work. When the clocks go back, spending drops significantly.
Yet health experts say that year-round DST would be pretty awful for our precious body clocks.
Though we would be sacrificing long summer evenings, standard time is far better aligned with human nature — generally synchronizing with waking with the sunrise and going to bed in darkness. It also means adults and children can go to school and work in daylight. DST does the reverse.
We also forget that we’ve already been there, done that. In the 1970s, Bloomberg’s editorial board writes, Congress imposed year-round DST. Everyone was happy at first — until the dead of winter, that is.
If it seems like there’s no perfect solution, maybe we’re thinking about the whole problem the wrong way. Andreas Kluth suggests simply ditching time zones altogether. They’re pretty arbitrarily drawn, for starters. China, for example, has one time zone even though the far western reaches of the country sees the sun rise several hours after the most easterly parts. They also mess with our circadian rhythms. Perhaps if we all adopted Coordinated Universal Time, or UTC — and it would be weird at first — we would be able to reconnect with the sun and natural time.
It might seem frivolous to argue over the clocks — but it has real health implications. Disrupted sleep has been associated with heart disease, depression, obesity, reduced cognitive function, stress, low libido, memory deficits — the list goes on. Unfortunately, sleep was something that, until recently, didn’t get much respect culturally. How often have you heard the phrases “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” or “sleep is for the weak”? Now, finally, we’re agreeing that sleep is for the healthy. Justin Fox noted last year that Americans are consistently not getting enough of it, and it’s been getting worse over time.
It probably doesn’t help that we’re living through some stressful world events. My dreams, once pandemic-fueled, have found a new source of inspiration in Vladimir Putin’s nightmarish war on Ukraine.