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It’s been hailed as a bipartisan triumph.
- “Ooh, I love it,” exclaimed Democratic Sen. Kyrsten Sinema.
- “An idea whose time has come,” said GOP Sen. Marco Rubio.
- “Common-sense legislation,” Democratic Sen. Patty Murray labeled it.
The Sunshine Protection Act, which cleared the Senate by unanimous consent last month, would make Daylight Saving Time permanent across the United States.
If the legislation can pass the House (where support appears less enthusiastic) and earn President Joe Biden’s signature, there would be no more falling back every year in the fall. More daylight and no more changing the clock.
Sounds nice, right? Not so fast.
The Senate’s enthusiasm for permanent Daylight Saving Time masks a very real debate at the intersection of human psychology, the economy and our collective sleep cycle.
First, some background. There’s an age-old myth that daylight saving was a practice adopted to give farmers extra time in the sun to work out in the field. But that’s not really why dozens of countries follow it.
Daylight Saving Time is a system to reduce electricity usage by moving daylight hours to later in the day. For eight months out of the year, the US and dozens of other countries follow DST, and for the remaining four months, revert back to standard time in order to take full advantage of the sunlight.
While the practice can help reduce some energy consumption, critics have raised concerns about whether the amount of energy saved is worth the hassle of implementing the system around the world.
In 2008, the US Department of Energy found that the four-week extension of DST from April-October to March-November saved about 0.5% in total electricity every day. While that seems like almost nothing, it totals 1.3 billion kilowatt-hours, which the DOE says adds up to “the amount of electricity used by more than 100,000 households for an entire year.”
But a study that same year by the National Bureau of Economic Research concluded that DST slightly increases the demand for residential electricity – even though lighting usage reduced, the demand for heating and cooling increased, so electricity consumption was about the same.
A sleep expert’s dissent
While there could be a debate in the House, there isn’t one within the sleep expert community, which argues that permanent Daylight Saving Time is a bad idea.
The Sunshine Protection Act? “You could just as well call it the Darkness Protection Act,” Dr. David Neubauer, an expert in sleep medicine at Johns Hopkins University, told What Matters.
“Nobody is creating more sunshine in this Act. It is simply stealing light from the morning, when we need it to reinforce our circadian clock, and adding it to the evening, when we really don’t need it,” he said.
Neubauer isn’t alone in his sentiment. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine issued a statement following the Senate’s passage of the Sunshine Protection Act warning that “making daylight saving time permanent overlooks potential health risks that can be avoided by establishing permanent standard time instead.”
The argument goes like this: During Daylight Saving Time, the clock moves an hour forward – so sunrise and sunset occur an hour later than before. This pushes the biological clock forward an hour as well. So, one might tend to go to bed later and have a harder time getting up in the morning.
And skimping on sleep goes far beyond dark circles under your eyes. Poor sleep is linked to type II diabetes, heart attacks and depression. A lack of sleep can even shrink your brain.
In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared the sleep problem a public health epidemic.
“It’s really quite ridiculous how the promotion of the Sunshine Protection Act suggested that there would be benefits metabolically,” Neubauer said.
It’s the economy, sleepy
Another argument in favor of permanent Daylight Saving Time posits that more daylight later in the afternoon will equate to more economic activity.
In a piece for CNN Opinion last month, Rubio and Democratic Sen. Ed Markey wrote that “extra sunshine in the evenings can give our economy a boost,” citing a bump in consumer spending in Denmark with increased daylight in the evenings.
But this too is far from settled. PNC economist Kurt Rankin told What Matters, “If there’s any economic impact at all, it’s short-lived. People adjust.”
“If we know anything, the US economy is driven by workers bringing home a paycheck and spending that paycheck. And they’re going to find a way and they’re going to find a reason to spend their paycheck,” regardless of Daylight Saving Time, he said.
Proponents of the Sunshine Protection Act have specifically pointed to the hospitality sector, noting that more daylight could help buoy recreational businesses and outdoor entertainment venues.
It’s a tantalizing premise – especially since consumer sentiment fell to its lowest level since August 2011 in March as US families worry about what their finances might look like in the year ahead.
Rankin, however, maintains that the effects would be minimal when you look at the scale of the US economy.
“In most parts of the country it’s too cold to enjoy those outdoor activities throughout the winter months anyway. So maybe places down South would see some benefit from that, but it would be a one-time benefit and people would adjust their schedules,” he said.
“And the next year, I would say people have already been used to it. There would be no disruption to the schedule, but it wouldn’t provide a benefit that wouldn’t already be realized.”
The psychology of sunshine
Finally, a considerable amount of the Sunshine Protection Act’s appeal rests on the idea that people enjoy sunshine more than they enjoy darkness.
Here, the bill’s supporters have a point. “You don’t need an advanced degree in clinical psychology to know that exercise and being outside is probably a good thing,” Kevin Bennett, a professor of social-personality psychology at Pennsylvania State University, told What Matters.
Time spent outdoors, Bennett said, “is wonderful for the body and for the mind and for overall well-being. I think the real reason is because it’s connected to our ancestral past. If you look at the environment in which humans evolved for thousands of generations, it was mostly outdoors and mostly natural environments.”
And with an additional hour of sunlight comes more opportunity for outdoor activity, the argument goes.
A 2015 study showed that people who take walks in nature report less repetitive negative thoughts. And the government health service in Scotland is so convinced of the mental and physical health benefits of nature that it encouraged doctors to give “nature prescriptions” to help treat high blood pressure, anxiety and depression.
Bennett acknowledged the concerns of sleep experts, but called the potential shift toward permanent Daylight Saving Time “a worthy experiment – something we should try.”
“And if it doesn’t work, we’ll go back in two years.”