Larks vs owls: Are early risers really happier? © Getty Images

Early risers and night owls: A neuroscientist explains who is happiest

Does early to bed and early to rise really make you healthy, wealthy and wise?

Don’t you envy those people who bounce out of bed early in the morning with a spring in their step? Or maybe you are lucky enough to be one of them! The early bird catches the worm, so they say, and pop culture is filled with variations on the theme that early risers do better in life, get more done and usually with a smile or their face.

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Countless articles promise us that if only we could drag ourselves out of bed an hour earlier in the morning, we’d become super productive, just like the world’s leading entrepreneurs.

If you’re a night owl who prefers to stay up late and nest cosily under the duvet in the morning, you might be hoping it’s not really true. But in fact, the psychology of ‘chronotypes’, as it’s known, largely backs up the popular image of early rising, happy go-getters; though, as ever, the reality is a little more nuanced.

One detail to bear in mind is that actually the majority – around 60 per cent – of us are not larks or owls, we’re an intermediate mix of the two. Another factor to consider is that chronotype isn’t just about the time you go to bed and get up in the morning, it’s also about your optimal time of functioning – larks tend to be at their best earlier in the day, while owls tend to function better later on, which could have obvious advantages for certain career paths involving evening work or night shifts.

As for who fits into which grouping, generally speaking, women more often tend to be of the lark or morning chronotype whereas men are more often the owl or evening chronotype. Age is another relevant factor. In adolescence, there’s a tendency to shift more toward the owl chronotype (no surprise there), but after adolescence, lark-like morningness tends to become more common with increasing age.

As for who is happier, many studies have indeed shown an association between being a morning person and greater happiness. For a recent example, consider a study of hundreds of medical students conducted at Dokuz Eylul University in Turkey – higher scores in morningness (ie, a self-reported preference for getting up early) were associated with scoring higher on a questionnaire measure of happiness.

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Put differently, the 26.6 per cent of students categorised as owls scored lower on happiness than the group (6.7 per cent) categorised as larks as well as the remainder of students categorised as intermediates. Studies of older people too – among whom it is more common to be a lark – similarly show an association between morningness and greater happiness.

According to a study carried out at the University of Leipzig, lark emotional advantage also manifests in greater satisfaction with life and reduced vulnerability to mental health problems. Other studies suggest that people who are owls are more likely than larks to experience symptoms of depression, seasonal affective disorder and substance abuse problems.

Complicating the issue, this difference might be at least partly explained by people who are owls tending to have less sleep or more sleep problems – rather than there being something advantageous about being a lark per se. Other possible mechanisms explaining the lark advantage are they seem to have better emotional regulation skills and a more positive attitude toward time, as compared with owls.

All of this raises questions about where our lark or owl-like tendencies come from, and relatedly, but perhaps more important, whether we can change them. As a team at the University of Warwick showed, chronotype is related to personality – being a lark is especially associated with scoring higher on the mostly advantageous trait of conscientiousness (one of the Big Five traits that’s associated with being more self-disciplined, orderly and ambitious).

Conversely, scoring higher in extraversion and openness is associated with being more of a night owl. In turn, personality and chronotype share some of the same underlying genetic influences, the team showed.

The good news is that neither personality nor chronotype are entirely set in stone. Both are shaped by factors beyond our genes, such as our family environment and professional roles and the routines they demand of us. This malleability beyond our genetic inheritance implies, as the University of Warwick researchers put it, “…it might be possible to change one’s chronotype in a more intentional way.”

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Some basic tips to shift toward being a lark include avoiding using digital devices in the evening, gradually aiming to go to bed earlier, and giving yourself something rewarding to get up for in the morning – be that a freshly brewed coffee, a leisurely walk or a spell of me-time on your iPad.

The bad news is that preliminary findings from the University of Warsaw, based on a study of undergrads, suggested that their seasonal-based shift in chronotype towards greater morningness (in the summer months) wasn’t associated with gains in mood and life satisfaction. This suggests that changing your chronotype might not be a quick fix way to become happier – you might need to think more radically than just setting an early alarm clock.

In part that’s probably because the causal direction between chronotype and happiness probably flows just as much in the other direction, from happiness to chronotype. If you can find contentment in life, and your days are busy and rewarding, you’ll probably find it that much easier to get to sleep on time at night and fly, free as a lark, out of bed each morning.

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