Early to Bed, Early to Rise

Donald Norfolk‘Early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise’ was almost certainly the most famous health tip to appear in the twenty-six editions of Poor Richard’s Almanack, the annual self-help pamphlet that Benjamin Franklin published under a pseudonym throughout the first half of the eighteenth century. Since this advice was offered at the start of the Industrial Revolution, is was accepted without question, because it was already held to be an essential practice for anyone with ambition and a desire for self improvement. John Ruskin was such a man. He got through a prodigious amount of work during his lifetime, writing two hundred-and-fifty books, some of which were exceedingly long. He achieved this output by rising at dawn and writing before breakfast. Samuel Johnson was equally convinced that this was the secret of success, asserting “nobody who does not rise early will ever do any good”. In fairness he freely admitted that he very often failed to observe this advice himself, regularly staying in bed until noon. Here he eventually had the support of many doctors, the British Medical Journal publishing a report at the end of the nineteenth century claiming that ‘early rising, instead of being a virtue as unscientific moralists have taught us, should be considered a mischievous practise condemned by sound physiology as well as by the natural instinct of mankind.’

It was only recently that two researchers from Southampton University thought to subject Franklin’s advice to scientific scrutiny. They caught up with the survivors of a group of 1229 retired men and women who’d taken part in a government survey carried out twenty-three years before. On looking through the data they found no evidence whatsoever that the larks were healthier, wealthier of wiser than the owls. Yet this idea still persists, and is now being promoted for totally different reasons. One recent psychological study showed that early risers tended to be more ‘pro-active’ that those who were late to get to bed. That means they felt more responsible for the conduct of their lives, and were more likely to have long-range goals. They got up early because they were eager to advance their cause. Henry David Thoreau was such a person.  He described himself as a sincere worshiper of Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, and described how he would get up early and bathe in Walden pond. He welcomed every dawn as a new beginning, and while taking his ritual dip would meditate on the motto engraved on the bath tub of an ancient king: “Renew thyself completely each day; do it again and again, and forever again.”  Like other sun worshippers, he welcomed each new dawn, taking the return of the sun as a symbol of fresh hopes and new beginnings.

Today there are three good reasons for following Franklin’s advice: the first is ecological, the second medical and the third psychological. The Japanese government has recently launched a ‘Morning Challenge’ campaign, encouraging people to reduce their carbon footprint by going to bed an hour earlier and rising an hour earlier. By exchanging late night electricity for early morning sun, the Japanese environment ministry reckons that the average household could cut its energy use for lighting by twenty percent. The ministry suggests that the early morning bonus hour should be spent in self improvement activities – eating a better breakfast, doing yoga, meditating, pursuing a correspondence course, reading an uplifting book or taking a leisurely stroll in natural surroundings.  The second argument stems from recent medical research, which explains why the start of the day has always been a high risk time for heart attacks and strokes. While we’re asleep our blood pressure falls by ten to thirty percent. The moment we stand up, it can soar by twenty points and remain at this high level until we get adjusted to the upright position.  To avoid this hazard it pays to start the day in a leisurely fashion, rather than by taking a quick gulp of coffee and then rushing off to work.

The first waking hour should set the tone for the rest of the day. This is the third, and most significant, reason for following Franklin’s advice. We should begin each day as we mean to carry on, in a state of relaxed and unhurried alertness. One housewife tells me that she makes a point of getting up an hour before the rest of the family, saying: ‘I believe every one ought to have a little private corner of the day. Waking up early is my way of getting it.’ An executive friend rises early so he can be the first to arrive in his office. This gives him a chance to plan his day in a relaxed fashion, before the phone starts ringing and colleagues start making calls on his time and attention. By taking this pro-active stance we can create an atmosphere of cheerfulness and calm which persists throughout the day. One American office worker did this with great success. When asked how she could arrive at work in such a jovial mood, when every one else was drowsy and glum, she replied: ‘Every morning when I get up I press the happiness button.’ So there are now three good reasons for adopting the Franklin routine. Get up early, press the happiness button, and treat each day as a new beginning.

© Donald Norfolk 2010


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