How to Get a Good Night's Sleep

Forget taking pills or counting sheep. Just make sure you can answer yes to five simple questions, and you're on your way to a restful night

Do you have trouble sleeping? If so, you're not alone—and the price you pay can be significant. Think about how irritable you are and how poorly you perform at work after not sleeping 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 sleepless turn to a wide range of remedies, including over-the-counter and prescription medications and various therapies. People in the U.S. spend $4.5 billion a year on sleep medications, according to a recent New York Times article.

At least one potential solution to sleep problems hasn't been mentioned on TV news programs, on radio talk shows, or in magazine or newspaper articles. It has, however, come up at every lecture I've ever given when I ask, "Why should we be ethical?"

Invariably someone will answer, "So I can sleep better at night." So it makes perfect sense to discuss in an ethics column how you can sleep well 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?

Rising Above What Others Do

If you can answer yes to all five questions, you will be almost guaranteed to have peaceful, uninterrupted slumber (assuming, of course, you have no physical problems preventing you from sleeping well). You will deserve this pleasant reward, because 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" meant that you refused to give in to the harsher impulses we all have, such as lashing out when others lash 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 rule says you must enrich the lives of others. You could have done just enough to fulfill your job description. Even if your work involves helping others directly, you always have the option to do merely what is asked of you—just as you have the option to go beyond. If you did more than what you were required to do to satisfy the minimum obligations of your job, you should be proud of yourself.

Temptations All Around

Your choice to respect others may have been challenging at times. When your boss asked why you made a mistake you know was your 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 were tempted 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.

Life is fraught with the temptation to do things we shouldn't. 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. 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, if you were able to answer yes to question No. 4, you overcame all of these obstacles.

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

The Five Fundamentals of Ethics

By answering yes to all five questions, you affirmed your commitment to the five fundamental principles of ethics (the subject of previous columns):

• Do No Harm

• Make Things Better

• Respect Others

• Be Fair

• Be Loving

Yes, serious health issues 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 require the intervention of a health-care professional. Nevertheless, much of the psychological conflict that keeps us up at night can be traced to choices we have made deliberately during the day. If we are able to choose to take the low road and are willing to accept the consequences for doing so, we are also able to choose to take the high road—and be rewarded with a peaceful night's slumber.

Life Is a Work in Progress

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 not to be. We lie instead of telling the truth, simply because it is easier. We allow anger to get the best of us and determine how we punish, even though we know 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.

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 works 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: Do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. Even so, we reap many professional and personal rewards in taking ethics seriously in all 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.

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