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Best measure of sleep quality is how you feel, not what your tracker says

The impact of sleep on our daily lives and overall well-being is undeniable, but a recent study led by the University of Warwick suggests it’s our perception of sleep quality, rather than what sleep-tracking technology reports, that matters most.

Focus of the study

The research was focused on more than 100 participants between the ages of 18 and 22 over a two-week period. Each participant was instructed to maintain a daily sleep diary, chronicling their bedtime rituals, including when they went to bed, the time it took to fall asleep, and their wake-up times. 

Beyond the tangible aspects of their sleep, the individuals were also asked to evaluate their satisfaction level with their sleep on a nightly basis.

How the study was conducted

Throughout each day, participants were asked to rate their positive and negative emotions and assess their life satisfaction. In order to evaluate the participants’ sleep patterns objectively, each participant was fitted with an actigraph, a device worn on the wrist that tracks a person’s movement to estimate sleep cycles.

The team of researchers, led by Dr. Anita Lenneis from the University of Warwick’s Department of Psychology, compared the actigraphy data with the participants’ own perceptions of their sleep and their emotional states throughout the following day. The goal was to determine how variances in typical sleep patterns and quality were associated with mood and life satisfaction.

What the researchers learned 

“Our results found that how young people evaluated their own sleep was consistently linked with how they felt about their well-being and life satisfaction,” said Dr. Lenneis.

“For example, when participants reported that they slept better than they normally did, they experienced more positive emotions and had a higher sense of life satisfaction the following day. However, the actigraphy-derived measure of sleep quality, which is called sleep efficiency, was not associated with next day’s well-being at all.”

This indicates a divergence between objectively measured sleep efficiency and a person’s own perception of sleep quality, and how these factors tie into evaluations of personal well-being.

“Our findings are consistent with our previous research that identified people’s self-reported health, and not their actual health conditions, as the main factor associated with their subjective well-being and especially with life satisfaction. It’s people’s perception of their sleep quality and not the actigraphy-based sleep efficiency which matters to their well-being,” explained Professor Anu Realo.

Implications of the study 

This study highlights the power of our own perceptions in contributing to our mood the day following a night’s sleep. 

“Even though a sleep tracking device might say that you slept poorly last night, your own perception of your sleep quality may be quite positive. And if you think that you slept well, it may help better your mood the next day,” said Dr. Lenneis.

The study findings also suggest that while sleep-tracking technology may be useful, it is our own subjective assessment of our sleep quality that can shape our mood and overall well-being. In the end, how we feel about our sleep may be more crucial than what technology tells us.

The study is published in the journal Emotion.

More about sleep quality

Sleep quality is a multi-dimensional concept, encompassing a variety of factors that together contribute to the overall perceived restfulness and rejuvenation associated with a good night’s sleep. It’s a subjective measure that can be influenced by many different elements, including, but not limited to:

Sleep duration

This refers to the total amount of sleep you get in a night. While the optimal amount can vary from person to person, most adults typically need between seven to nine hours of sleep per night.

Sleep efficiency

This is the ratio of the total time spent asleep (total sleep time) to the total time spent in bed. A higher sleep efficiency indicates that you’re spending more of your time in bed actually sleeping.

Sleep onset

This refers to the length of time it takes for you to fall asleep after getting into bed. A shorter sleep onset time usually indicates better sleep quality.

Sleep continuity

This relates to the number of disruptions or awakenings you have during the night. Fewer awakenings typically equate to better sleep quality.

Sleep architecture

This refers to the various stages of sleep, including rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. Each stage serves different functions, and a good balance of each is considered a marker of good sleep quality.

Subjective sleep quality

This is how you personally rate your sleep, usually upon waking. It’s influenced by a range of factors and often aligns closely with your feelings of restfulness, recovery, and overall well-being upon waking.

Sleep quality is essential because good quality sleep can significantly impact various aspects of health and well-being, from physical health to mental well-being, cognitive function, and even emotional regulation. 

If you have concerns about your sleep quality, it is recommended to consult with a healthcare provider or a sleep specialist who can provide guidance based on your specific needs and circumstances.


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