Ask the Ethics Guy!®

How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

By Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D.

 

Bruce Weinstein PhDForget taking pills or counting sheep. Just make sure you can answer yes to five simple questions.

Do you have trouble sleeping?

If so, you’re not alone—and the price you pay can be significant.  Think about how irritable you can be and how poorly you perform at work after you haven’t slept well.  It’s not just your mood and performance that are at risk, either. Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to such heath problems as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.  The afflicted turn to a wide range of antidotes, including over-the-counter and prescription medication and a wide range of therapies.  People in the United States spend $4.5 billion a year on sleep medications alone, according to a recent New York Times article by Stephanie Saul.  

However, there is one potential solution to sleeping problems that hasn’t been mentioned in television news programs, radio talk shows, magazine articles, or newspaper reports.

It has, however, come up at every single lecture I’ve ever given when I ask: “Why should we be ethical?”

Invariably, someone will answer:  “So I can sleep better at night.”

As you will see, it makes perfect sense to discuss in an ethics column how you can be assured of a good night’s sleep every night.

This evening, before you go to bed, ask yourself the following five questions:

1. Did I avoid causing harm?
2. Did I make things better?
3. Did I respect others?
4. Was I fair? 
5. Was I compassionate?

If you can answer “yes” to all five questions, you will almost be guaranteed to have peaceful, uninterrupted slumber (assuming, of course, that you have no physical problems that are preventing you from sleeping well).  You will deserve this pleasant reward, because you will have shown that you took the high road when it might have been easier to take the low one.

In looking back on the day, your commitment to “do no harm” showed that you refused to give in to the harsher impulses we all have, such lashing out at others after they have lashed out at us.  Anyone can tear down.  It’s not so easy to rise above.

By making things better, you went beyond what the law or your company’s policies required of you.  After all, no statute or institutional rule tells you that you must enrich the lives of others. You could have done just enough to fulfill your job description.  Even if your job involves benefiting others directly, it is always possible to go beyond what is asked of you.  If you did more than just what you needed to do to satisfy the minimum requirements of your job, you should be proud of yourself.

Your choice to respect others, with all that this implies, may have been  challenging at times.  When your boss asked you why you made a mistake that you know was your own fault, it would have been easier to lie, but you had the courage to be truthful.  When you were in a position to reveal a secret entrusted to you, it might have been fun to gossip, but you did the right thing and kept the secret to yourself.  Perhaps you had the opportunity to break a promise to a friend because something better came along, but you kept your word and revealed yourself to be a person of integrity. 

Treating others fairly is fraught with the temptation to take into account things that we shouldn’t but too often do.  We give a job to a friend or family member instead of to someone who is better qualified, or we don’t give a job to someone because of a personal prejudice of ours.  We choose a certain punishment not because it is just,  but because anger and other emotions get the best of us.  We fail to take action when we encounter a social or economic injustice.  Today, however, when you were able to answer “yes” to question #4, you overcame all of these obstacles.

Most importantly of all, you treated others with compassion, kindness, and love.  The people who received your gift may not have told you that they appreciated what you did, but you can bet that your actions made a difference.  It might seem strange to talk about love in publication devoted to business and finance, but without love, how meaningful would our success really be?

By answering all of the above five questions affirmatively, you affirmed your commitment to the five fundamental principles of ethics:

•           Do No Harm
•           Make Things Better
•           Respect Others
•           Be Fair
•           Be Loving

Yes, there are serious health issues that can prevent us from sleeping, and even the most rigorous adherence to the principles of ethics won’t overcome these sorts of problems.  Medical conditions such as sleep apnea require the intervention of a health care professional, which I am not.  Nevertheless, much of the psychological conflict that keeps us up at night can indeed be traced to choices we have deliberately made during the day. If we can choose to take the low road and are willing to accept the consequences for doing so, we can also choose to take the high road–and be rewarded with a peaceful night’s slumber, among other benefits.

It is also the case that, no matter how hard we try to the do right thing, or how often we set out to be the best we can be, we fail, over and over again.

We respond to a nasty remark with more nastiness.

We are in a position to be a force for good, but we choose to do otherwise.

We lie instead of telling the truth, simply because it is easier to do so.

We allow anger to get the best of us and determine how we mete out punishment, even though we know that this isn’t right.

We have the opportunity to show loving kindness to someone, but we keep that feeling bottled up, perhaps out of fear of appearing weak or making ourselves vulnerable.

In other words, when we go through the checklist above, we are not always able to answer “yes” to every one of the five questions.

But let’s cut ourselves some slack.

After all, there’s always tomorrow. And the day after that, and the day after that.

Our lives are a work in progress, and by striving to live ethically, we seek to bring out the best in ourselves.  In so doing, we may very well bring out the best in others.   It bears repeating: the reason to do the right thing is simply because it is the right thing to do.  Nevertheless, we reap many professional and personal rewards by taking ethics seriously in all that we do.  Enjoying deep, restful, restorative slumber is one of those dividends.

May you have a good night’s sleep tonight, tomorrow, and every night. 

* * *

This column appeared originally on BusinessWeek.com.

 ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bruce Weinstein, Ph.D. is the corporate consultant and public speaker known as The Ethics Guy®. He writes the ethics column for BusinessWeek.com and has appeared as an ethics analyst on The Today Show, Good Morning America, Anderson Cooper 360, Lou Dobbs Tonight, The O’Reilly Factor, MSNBC Live, Bloomberg Television’s Personal Finance, and many other national television programs. See interview clips, keynote address excerpts, and more at TheEthicsGuy.com.

To book him as a speaker, please call 800 285 6988.

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