Home All Choice, Sleep and Happiness – Confessions of A Teenage Maximizer

Choice, Sleep and Happiness – Confessions of A Teenage Maximizer

written by John Yeager 11 April 2008

John M. Yeager, Ed.D, MAPP, is Director of the Center for Character Excellence at The Culver Academies in Culver, Indiana. John consults with Dave Shearon, and Sherri Fisher at www.FlourishingSchools.com, an organization that integrates best practices in education with cutting edge Positive Psychology research. He co-authored the recently published book, Smart Strengths: Building Character, Resilience and Relationships in Youth. Full bio.

John's articles are here.

Sleeping Teen

Sleeping Teen

Sleep Deprivation is rapidly becoming a major health issue for many adolescents. The adolescent sleep research is now telling us that teens ought to be getting 8-9 hours of sleep, while we know that many have habituated themselves into 4-6 hour bouts of shut-eye. There are a variety of factors responsible for this behavior. From a brain chemistry perspective, less sleep decreases brain serotonin levels, which can influence academic and athletic performance and overall subjective well-being. At the same time, young people are busier than ever before during the waking hours, keeping their “dopamine” levels coursing through the system, with a “gotta have it” motivation. Have we developed a culture of adolescent “maximizers” who are doing more on less sleep?

The problem of sleep deprivation in teens
Mary Carskadon, a renowned sleep researcher, is alarmed by issues of sleep deprivation among our youth. She claims that teens typically experience “phase delay” where the release of melatonin (a hormone that supports sleep regulation) in their brains happens later on in the evening. This is much later than the average adult. With teens going to bed at midnight or 1 AM, they are just following their circadian clocks. However, many will be up 6:30 AM and “sort of” ready to roll to get the most out of a 18 and 19 hour day.

A personal look at the problem
To take a more personal look at this concern, one of the students in my 12th grade Health Issues seminar course provided permission for me to share excerpts from a recent paper:

A maximizer is a person who decides he/she has to do everything and anything. I am a maximizer, partly because I enjoy everything I do, I want to try new activities, and it looks good on college applications. As Machiavellian as that sounds, countless high schoolers are doing more and more activities with hope that “padding” their resume will help them get into college. Other people are just natural maximizers. They feel that they have to do everything or be in charge of everything. This tendency to maximize generally leads to stress and the quality of happiness decreases.

A lot of people question those who are maximizers. They say that a person who maximizes does so by choice and they could stop at any moment. Contrary to this is Barry Schwartz’s view, “as the experience of choice and control gets broader and deeper, expectations about choice and control may rise to match that experience” (Schwartz, 2004). Schwartz is saying that as society has expanded the right to choose, people have also started to judge more harshly those choices. A person who chooses to say no to responsibility or leadership chances is looked down on more than the person who says yes to all of them. However, at the same time, as a person is saying yes to every leadership/responsibility, society is also condemning them for “choosing” to take on too much. People become stuck between a rock and a hard place. Stress levels in people in these situations become higher as time progresses under these conditions. High stress levels eventually lead to people wanting to survive their day or week and in doing so, giving up components necessary to good health.

One of the main components that humans give up in attempt to survive is sleep. Teenagers naturally go to sleep later and wake up later. It is how melatonin in their brain works. However, adults around the world have decided that it is better for teens to start school early in the morning when they would normally be asleep still. Barbara Strauch discusses this problem, “That’s left us with a disconnect between the amount of sleep teenagers need and the amount they’re getting, a nation of sleep-deprived […] teenagers.” Many teenagers are the epitome of maximizers, between grades, getting into college, and the rising expectation of parents, they have to find ways to create more time. Teenagers should be getting at least nine hours of sleep a night, but most of them are getting less in order to complete everything they feel they have to do in a day. Some are not even able to go to bed until later because they are too wired. Then they are waking up earlier and earlier in order to be ready for school. Strauch has it right when she says that America and its adults are creating “a nation of sleep-deprived teenagers”. This lack of sleep, while most teenagers believe will help them and alleviate the stress, in fact only increases it.

Sleep and Character Strengths

This student’s testimonial relates to a research study I conducted in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania. I studied the relationship between character strengths, academic performance and health behavior among high school freshmen and seniors. Having Prudence as a strength was significant for those participants who sleep more than seven hours per evening during the typical school week. That makes sense. However, students whose strength endorsements tended to be higher (4’s and 5’s on a Likert scale of 1-5) correlated with having less sleep. Although these values weren’t significant and more study is necessary, it begs the question: Do adolescents who “persevere” do so at the expense of sleep? There is a great self-regulation issue at hand that may not undue itself without behavioral change.

The important question to ask is: Will today’s adolescent maximizers run the risk of bankrupting the currency of sleep and potentially decrease their subjective well-being as they journey to adulthood? I will discuss this phenomena in next month’s article.



Carskadon, M.A. (2007). Work, School, Sleep, and Circadian Timing in Adolescence. Contemporary Perspectives on Adolescent Sleep.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schwartz, B. (2004). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less. New York: Ecco.

Strauch, B. (2003). The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries about the Teenage Brain Tell Us about Our Kids. New York: Anchor Books.

Wolfson, A.R., & Carskadon, M.A. (1998). Sleep Schedules and Daytime Functioning in Adolescents. Child Development, 69 (4), . 875-887.

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Jeff Dustin 11 April 2008 - 8:22 pm

I am a vampire. No, not the blood-sucking kind. Yet I keep undead hours. Its a blessing/curse that I am up late into the wee hours and doze during the day. I can tell you, daylight makes a difference in how you feel physically. Also, I think sunlight does boost good moods. Maybe you habituate…but I bet there is a certain amount that you need for optimal moods. Provocative reading material, John.

Wayne Jencke 13 April 2008 - 10:11 am

New research suggests that positive affect improves peoples sleep

Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Volume 64, Issue 4, April 2008, Pages 409-415

Senia 18 April 2008 - 6:55 am

John, so glad you wrote this. How true. And I’d go further – much more than about teenagers – how true about overworked working people.

You said, “However, students whose strength endorsements tended to be higher (4’s and 5’s on a likert scale of 1-5) correlated with having less sleep.” What did you mean by “strength endorsements tended to be higher”? What’s a strength endorsement?

I’m lousy at consistent sleep. Some months, I’m great, and those are my happiest months, but other times, I don’t self-regulate enough. And this is one of the consistent things that I see that goes well with my coaching clients who succeed – good sleep habits.

I seriously believe that one day, positive psychology will determine that sleep is the base layer to happiness. I’m not even kidding here. The next base layer, I expect, will be exercise. And then other things, such as doing the “Three Good Things/Three Blessings” exercise, using your strengths, etc.

Another great book on the topic of sleep is “Sleep Thieves.” Every person would love some of the facts in this books- including facts such as that trying to make up for sleep several nights later does not undo the damage from that night of less sleep.

At least there are weekends, in order to try to get back into a good self-regulating sleep schedule for the following week!

Thanks, S.


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