Trompler Foundation Archives

Morning People

You know who they are. They spring from bed, full of vim and vigor, at the most ungodly hours of the morning. They wax eloquent on the beauty of the breaking of dawn. They are oh so pleased with all the stuff they can accomplish before normal people wake up. They are fellow travellers of people who, like gym teachers, subscribe to the neo-Calvinist philosophy that suffering=virtue. They are indifferent to or even resentful of the fact that normal people prefer to sleep during the otherwise productive hours between Matins and Terce. And they whistle.

This is the common perception of Morning People. Note that I did not enclose "normal" with the quotes it deserves; critics of Morning People often assure themselves that the idiosyncracies of Morning People disqualify them from any claim to normality. I contend that this perception, like most stereotypes derived from public ridicule, both distorts the true pathology of Morning People and obscures an important link between Morning People and some of their most vocal critics.

I claim the authority to describe Morning People because I am a Morning Person myself, and my father and all of my grandparents are Morning People (A true Morning Person response is that only Morning People can describe Morning People, since everyone else is too busy sleeping). I regularly rise before 0500, and I have difficulty sleeping past 0800 unless I stay up very late (like 0200 or later) and/or imbibe ridiculous amounts of alcohol the night before. Barring a compelling distraction, I start to nod off around 2130. I am one of the soundest sleepers I know.

The human body, like all biological organisms, likes cycles. Circadian rhythyms are a pretty strong force, and disturbing them can, in extreme cases, constitute a health risk. However, circadian rhythyms can be modified and shifted. The discipline required by such modification is not very different from that required to lose weight or quit smoking. The trick, of course, is gradual shifting. "Cold Turkey" ("Early Bird"?) modification of circadian rhythyms will result in the symptoms similar to those for withdrawal. I'm sure there exist extreme cases of people whose circadian rhythyms are so fixed as to argue against (on health grounds) modification, but I suspect they are rare.

The conclusion I draw from this is that, in adults, circadian rhythyms are the result of choice (or neglect of choice), and not the absence of choice. One's life may contain obligations, whether scholastic or occupational, that make specific demands upon one's circadian rhythyms. One must then either adapt one's rhythyms or forgo such obligations. Adaptation can occur in a range of reactions, from bitter resistance to utter embrace. On one end of the scale, one can continually regard the adaptation as forced and unjust, preserving the symptoms of disturbed rhythyms (disorientation, fatigue, irritability) as perpetual reminders of the injustice. On the other end of the scale, one can immerse oneself in the new rhythyms and make a habit out of the new schedule. In the latter case, a new job or academic schedule can bring about a self-reidentification as either a Morning Person or a Night Person. I have had reactions on both ends of the scale.

Most Morning People I know had, at one point or another, some obligation or "lifestyle-choice" which demanded that they rise early. Historically, a rural lifestyle was a common means of producing Morning People. In the case of my father, his bad back simply prevents him from sleeping well. He may have had other reasons for rising early, but his back has been demanding enough to keep him on schedule. For myself, the most consistent obligation has been commuting with public transportation, which in Seattle is inefficient and unforgiving of unpunctuality.

Were it mere response to the demands of an imposed schedule, being a Morning Person wouldn't arouse such scorn. We would be just as sullen and irritable as our late-rising brethren and sistren in the rat race. Nor does obedience to habit account for Morning People's disrepute; inability to break a habit gets you pity in American society, or at worst, a spot on Geraldo. No, I believe there are two factors which have led to the poor image of Morning People; one of which can be eliminated by Morning People themselves, but the other is up to the understanding of others.

The first factor contributing to the infamy of Morning People is their attitude towards non-Morning People. I'm the first to admit that some Morning People can be prigs. It is the unfortunate legacy of American society that there is a lingering Puritianism in our political culture, such that we seem to imbibe with our mother's milk the notion that personal weakness is a legitimate subject for public condemnation. It is all too brief a step from pride in being a Morning Person to smarmy vocal characterizations of non-Morning People as lazy, which even if it were true (and I'm not saying it is), is certainly not anyone's business. I should hasten to add that the Puritanical Morning People are not at all representative of all Morning People; unfortunately, they more than make up for their minority with their abusiveness.

The other factor in the poor image of Morning People is the association of early-rising with a) fascism and b) being old-fashioned. Both associations are understandable, but they are no less unjust for it. The best known example of imposed early-rising is the Army. The comparison between drill instructors and gym teachers is not at all unjust, and from there it is all too easy to conflate all attempts to impose physical demands in the name of a greater good. Morning People are subsequently seen as having submerged their autonomy in some false ideology; why else would they get up so bloody early? Any defenses of their lifestyle a Morning Person might offer are dismissed as post-hoc rationalizations. Of course, any Puritanical "suggestion" by a Morning Person that a non-Morning Person might benefit by rising early only plays into this misperception.

The other common misperception of Morning People is that they are old-fashioned. This is of course due to the tradition of the agricultural lifestyle. I occasionally get up at 0400, but it's not because I milk cows, I assure you (I've always suspected that cows' circadian rhythyms could be modified, but that it was the farmers' rhythyms that were unmovable, but since I don't know a Guernsey from an Isle of Wight, I'll defer to actual dairy professionals). Authoritarian parents are also notorious for imposing draconian curfews and bedtimes, so voluntary adherence to early bedtimes smacks of "unhipness."

Given the time-honored (and now, thanks to Madison Avenue, target-marketed and packaged) American tradition of rebellion, being associated with fascism or being old-fashioned is about lowest one can sink in public opinion. The American rebel stays up as late as he wants, and doesn't get up if he doesn't want to! As soon as the American youth first hears the sinister, fascistic mantra "Early to bed/early to rise,/Makes a man/healthy, wealthy and wise", he resolves to "beat the system" and proceeds to modify his circadian rhythyms to permit him to stay up later than any of his friends. By high school, anyone still retiring by 2200 is despised.

I find it not in the least ironic that both and Morning People and Night People had to expend effort to modify their circadian rhythyms, but that the efforts of Night People are somehow more laudable because rising early is associated with farmers and drill instructors. I am not, however, relying upon this irony to improve the reputation of Morning People. It is my contention that while Night People may have established their rhythyms in an effort to demonstrate their independence, successful maintenance of "unorthodox" hours requires the same kind of social detachment, regardless if they are early or late hours.

Since having recognized and accepted my status as a Morning Person, I have been bemused by the number of ways in which I deviate from the popular Morning Person stereotype. Although I require no stimulants immediately after rising (I am addicted to caffeine, but I don't particuarly need it in the morning), my consciousness does increase incrementally after rising; I don't wake up instantly alert. I don't immediately set to work in the morning; I putter around, pretending that my time is my own, that I can go to work "when I feel like it." And I don't derive any delusions of superiority from being a Morning Person (from other things, yes); I have only to reflect on the fact that I am hard-pressed to stay awake until Letterman's Top Ten to be assured of the equal validity of Night People.

However, the most important thing to me about being a Morning Person is that no one else is around in the morning. I have no doubt whatsoever that if rising early were more popular it would lose all appeal for me. From less traffic to no lines at the supermarket (thank God for the 24-hour free market), the little joys of being one of the few people quietly pursuing my own interests are very reassuring. Because I start work early, I leave work early. All the common daily struggles are fought with the added advantage of priority. In a "first come, first serve" society, the rewards of early rising are plain.

At this point, the Night People are shouting, "We have the same advantage! No one is around at 2330, either!" This is precisely my point. It is unnecessarily divisive and just plain inaccurate to view Morning People and Night People as diametrically opposed. Both seek to do an end-run around the daily grind that tries to force us to compete against one another. Both view circadian rhythyms as personal expressions beyond the dictates of others. Both are perfectly capable of functioning independently and prefer to do so. And both derive security (not necessarily superiority) from their recognition of their deviance.

Although I'm probably biased because my wife is a Night Person, I suspect that if family members don't start out with different circadian rhythyms, they naturally modify them until they deviate from each other at least a little. I'm suspicious of families in which all members keep the same hours; they're symptomatic of a larger tyranny (given the traditional weight towards early rising, such tyrannies are largely responsible for most of the poor image of Morning People). I view the malleability of circadian rhythyms as a natural method of providing cohabitants with a little extra time alone.

So the next time you get to work and your favorite Morning Person mentions that he's been up for six hours already, understand that this is no more (or less) insane than when you stayed up until 0200 last week. And if you find yourself obliged to get up at 0500 on a regular basis, learn to appreciate that your time is no less yours in the morning than in the evening.

Eric Scharf

Copyright © 1995 by Eric Scharf.  All rights reserved.