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Why do Hawaiians get the least amount of sleep?

Written By | Apr 21, 2016

HONOLULU, Feb. 19, 2016 — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s latest Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report has heads being scratched all across the continental United States. Just why would Hawaii, a laid-back tropical vacation destination beloved by honeymooners and tourists alike, have the least amount of sleep (less than seven hours) in the nation? As Hawaii’s No. 1 insomniac, I think I can give the rest of the world an explanation why pillow time is short in the Aloha State.

Sleepless in Honolulu: #TeamNoSleep808

Island locals have a saying in pidgin English: “Lucky we live Hawaii!” For dilettantes of Hawaii lifestyle, uttering that apothegm traditionally follows discovery of the latest study to reveal the Aloha State yet again ranks at the bottom of another list of horribles, being the worst in business, the worst place to be employed, the worst cost of living and more. “Lucky we live Hawaii” is a sigh, a tragic statement that reflects the dystopia that the Hawaiian paradise has become over the years.

During the work week, my average day begins at 3:30 a.m. and ends around 10 p.m. — not including nights where I work overtime — if I’m lucky to actually fall asleep. My routine typically looks like this:

3:30 a.m. – Wake up, take shower, get dressed in gym clothes
3:45 a.m. – Get in car, drive 6.3 miles to the gym
3:54 a.m. – Arrive at gym, use restroom, exercise
5:20 a.m. – Leave gym, drive 6.3 miles back to house
5:29 a.m. – Arrive back at home, cook breakfast, eat, then prepare lunch for work
5:50 a.m. – Take shower, shave, groom, get dressed
6:11 a.m. – Leave for morning commute, drive 17.3 miles to work via H1
7:20 a.m. – Arrive at campus, work begins* (I’m required to clock in by 7:45 a.m.)
12:00 p.m. – Lunch break, followed by a brisk walk around downtown Honolulu for exercise
12:46 p.m. – Return to campus, work continues
4:35 p.m. – Leave work, get in car to go home, drive 17.3 miles back home via H1
5:50 p.m. – Arrive home, place dirty clothes in washing machine or set aside for dry cleaning
5:55 p.m. – Cook dinner, eat
6:20 p.m. – Wash pans, cooking utensils, plates
6:25 p.m. – Take shower, take mind off work, thoroughly wash with hypoallergenic soap
6:40 p.m. – Dry off, get in sleeping clothes, read emails/social media, answer missed calls, talk with friends
9:00 p.m. – Close eyes, attempt to fall asleep
10:00 p.m. – Fall asleep
12:56 p.m. – Awaken from work-related nightmare, then return to sleep
1:30 a.m. – Wake up, check iPhone (sorry, Donald Trump) to see it isn’t 5:30 a.m., return to sleep
2:45 a.m. – Wake up again, check iPhone to make sure it still isn’t 5:30 a.m., return to sleep
3:16 a.m. – Wake up yet again, realize day is about to begin, phase in and out of consciousness
3:30 a.m. – New day begins


Honolulu traffic is one of Hawaii's worst evils. (Photo by Danny de Gracia)

Traffic is one of Hawaii’s worst evils. (Photo by Danny de Gracia)

Out of my day, a significant amount of time goes purely to getting to where I want to go. Oahu residents in Hawaii know that, if you want to arrive anywhere “on time,” you have to factor a huge buffer into your schedule just to drive there. For me, it takes eight to nine minutes just to drive 6.3 miles to the gym, and the same amount to get back to my house after my workout is complete. Even though I don’t officially have to be at work until 7:45 a.m., I have to leave my house ideally by 6:11 a.m., but not later than 6:35 a.m. if I want to have any chance of being punctual.

The next hour to as much as two hours in the event of bad weather, traffic accidents or the occasional individual committing suicide by means of jumping off a bridge, is spent in traffic, driving a paltry 17.3 miles.  (By contrast, when I was attending grad school in Texas, I routinely drove a distance of 44 miles from my house to the university, taking a little less than 40 minutes to travel 44 miles.)

Returning home, Honolulu commuters face equally bad traffic. On a “good night” one can expect to get home somewhere between 45 minutes to a little over an hour. Accidents and other unforeseen incidents can dilate that time significantly, from two hours on average, to an insane four to even six hours, which happened when Oahu’s HOV “zipper lane” malfunctioned and also when an Army vehicle collided with a concrete bridge.

One Stop Light After Another

Hawaiians have another saying: “The closest distance between two points in Hawaii is under construction.” If I were to characterize driving on Oahu, it consists of driving from one stop light to another. Constant roadwork or major construction projects also means the already narrow streets are often reduced to a single lane, making traffic even worse.

Hawaii also has a pedestrian law (HRS §291C-72) that fines drivers $150 for entering a crosswalk where pedestrians have already begun to transit. While the safety protections intended by the law are noble, the way the law is enforced results in Honolulu drivers’ proactively waiting for a pedestrian to completely make it from one end of the street to the other before even attempting to make a turn, lest they be fined.  Whenever the traffic light is “green” to turn, the crosswalk is simultaneously “white” for pedestrians to cross. The end result? Driving in Honolulu is a constant exercise in frustration in standing still at a green light until it turns red, only to see it turn green (then red again) until sheer probability enables you to actually turn.

Work/Life Balance: No Such Thing

Underpaid, overworked, and not enough sleep: "The Good Life" is for only a few in Hawaii. (Photo by Danny de Gracia)

Underpaid, overworked, and not enough sleep: “The Good Life” is for only a select few in Hawaii. (Photo by Danny de Gracia)

As an avid reader of “self-improvement” publications like Harvard Business Review, I know all about the scientific theory of a work/life balance, and all it entails (highly productive people “outsource everything,” say no to everything, “pass” aka fake it at work, don’t read email until they feel like it, don’t internalize, don’t work overtime, etc.) but the reality is that “life” just doesn’t work that way for the majority of Hawaii residents.

Many of us work in dysfunctional work environments that make the 1990s corporate comedy “Office Space” seem like a tame dream job by contrast, where competency is punished with spillover crisis management from lazy coworkers, incompetency and inexperience — because it is non-threatening — are rewarded with promotion, rampant narcissism and megalomania abounds, and whatever little money we do make is consumed by high costs of living, high costs of gasoline and skyrocketing insurance premiums.

All of this external pressure results in an incredible amount of internal emotional and psychic stress that wears the body down in a number of horrible ways, including hypertension, elevated blood glucose levels, digestive problems, frequent headaches,and, in my case, no short supply of high-definition nightmares. Is it any wonder that sleep is in short supply for Hawaiians?

Hawaii is a Giant Version of the Stanford Prison Experiment

Why get promoted when you can just get more work? (Photo by Instagram)

Why get promoted when you can just get more work? (Photo by Instagram)

As a political scientist, I can tell you that the collective impact of Hawaii’s litany of pressures is that mass social behavior changes as a result of this stress. The tight roads, narrow parking spaces, prolonged traffic and confusing infrastructure make individuals aggressive, on-edge and hyper-competitive.

The brutal jobs we work leave many Hawaiians burned out, exhausted and feeling dehumanized at the end of the day, which results in an overwhelming desire to be shut off and isolated from others in their free time. This is most noticeable in the fact that many Hawaii houses are completely surrounded by fences that prohibit neighbors from so much as even knocking on the front front door, let alone enter the driveway. In one incident in 2006, I discovered on my driveway an abandoned basketball (my driveway is not fenced in), and, being a neighborly person, I went door to door asking if anyone had lost a ball in the hopes of reuniting the object with its owner. I quickly discovered that was a no-no, as my neighbors responded with paranoid suspicion, even anger that I had bothered to disturb them.

Hawaii's confusing, frustrating, micromanagerial lifestyle affects the entire ecosystem. (Photo by Danny de Gracia)

Hawaii’s confusing, frustrating, micromanagerial lifestyle affects the entire ecosystem. (Photo by Danny de Gracia)

The motto of the State of Hawaii is “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono” which loosely translates into English as “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.” Yet being a righteous, socially-responsible individual in a place like Hawaii is one of the most challenging things to do, because everything around us is a constant frustration to our best efforts and “an up at dawn, pride swallowing siege” that we can never fully talk about. Embracing humanity in a stressed out, overworked, under-rewarded society like Hawaii is a lot like holding a porcupine — the closer you get, the more injury you experience. Because of this, I and many other average Hawaiians find it difficult to sleep at night without wrestling with moral conflicts over the future of our families and our way of life.

If Hawaiians want to sleep better at night, there are several things that must first take place within this state. First, we must make an effort to make Hawaii a society governed by grace rather than one law after another at the state legislature. Hawaii has far too many determinalistic, micromanagerial nanny state laws that restrict individual freedoms and make everything illegal. Between complying with a mountain of paperwork filing requirements and navigating an asteroid field of complicated laws and just trying to live, Hawaiians have it tough. Hawaiians need legislators who will empower them, not restrict them.

The flip side of this also necessitates that individuals need to value compassion and patience over excessive competition and aggression. As a state that began as a kingdom, Hawaii can relate to Jesus’ warning in Matthew 11:12: “The kingdom of heaven has endured violent assault, and violent men seize it by force.” To this day, people are constantly attempting to seize what belongs to others, either through government-sanctioned plunder or by cheating others. This has to change, and now.

The second thing that must happen is that voters in Hawaii must demand better infrastructure and a higher quality of life. So long as our infrastructure is a mess, our lives will be a mess. Hawaii deserves better than to be a concrete jungle of pothole-strewn streets, congested freeways, clogged and polluted beaches and dilapidated public facilities. For too long policymakers in Hawaii have neglected the basic, core, legitimate function of government with regard to providing working infrastructure. Hawaiians have been left behind and defrauded, and their personal desires have been lightly esteemed by government, which, collectively, has broken the spirit of this island nation.

We will all sleep better in Hawaii when this nightmare ends. But, perhaps, all of us as Hawaii voters in August and November 2016 will need to dream of what we need, what is possible and what we deserve, and vote for change in order to secure it.


Dr. de Gracia is a political scientist, an ordained minister, a former elected official and the author of the new political thriller “American Kiss,” available now from, Barnes and Noble and other major bookstores. DISCLOSURE: Danny de Gracia is an elected Republican district chairman, but his opinions are expressly his own and do not reflect the official opinion of any organization.

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Danny de Gracia

Dr. Danny de Gracia is a political scientist and a former senior adviser to the Human Services and International Affairs standing committees as well as a former minority caucus research analyst at the Hawaii State Legislature. From 2011-2013 he served as an elected municipal board member in Waipahu. As an expert in international relations theory, military policy, political psychology and economics, he has advised numerous policymakers and elected officials and his opinions have been featured worldwide. He has two doctorates in theology and ministry, a postgraduate in strategic marketing, a master's in political science and a bachelor's in political science and public administration. Writing on comparative politics, modern culture, fashion and more, Danny is also the author of the new novel "American Kiss" available now from