Sleepless in Chennai: The Economic and Health Effects of Reducing Sleep Deprivation Among the Urban Poor

We spend roughly 1/3 of our lives asleep. A robust body of evidence demonstrates that this sleep is essential to basic cognitive functions and biological processes such as immune function. However, with a few important exceptions, these conclusions largely derive from short-run studies of acute sleep deprivation in labs and thus understandably focus on short-term biological and cognitive outcomes. In contrast, we know much less about how sleep, or sleep deprivation, affects “downstream” outcomes such as economic productivity, decision-making, and health outside the lab and over longer periods. This gap is particularly acute in developing countries where residents face heavy exposure to factors such as noise, health, stress, and overcrowding, which may disrupt and limit sleep. To begin to fill this gap, I will present results from a one-month randomized field experiment in Chennai, India, which: (1) provides the first objective measures of sleep deprivation at scale in a developing country, (2) evaluates three interventions to reduce sleep deprivation among low-income adults, and (3) estimates the causal effect of improved sleep on a variety of economic and health outcomes.

Written with Gautam Rao (Harvard University) and Frank Schilbach (MIT)