This article is not meant to diagnose or provide medical advice—that responsibility lies with physicians. The author is not a licensed medical professional.
Are you a lark or a night owl? You may know that your chronotype (your tendency toward lark-ness or night owl-ness) can affect your well-being (larks tend to be healthier) but did you know that certain personality traits are associated with each chronotype?
Here’s what your preferred time of day says about your personality.
Morning types show more conscientiousness, resilience and persistence. Larks are also more likely to be academically successful.
These early birds “trust direct experience and observable phenomena; they prefer to process knowledge using analysis and logic,” say the investigators of a 2015 study of Facebook users, citing research by co-author Juan Francisco Diaz-Morales, Ph.D., M.D., of the Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Larks also tend to be self-controlled, respectful and cooperative.
On the other hand, attraction to evening is associated with intelligence, openness to new experiences, extraversion, risk-taking and impulsivity. At the same time, night owls are more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety disorders, not to mention a more intensive and intrusive use of Facebook, apparently.
Evening types may be more imaginative and intuitive, according to the Facebook study; research suggests they tend to be creative thinkers and innovators.
It looks like there are several factors at work, including social jetlag, or the difference between the timing demands of daily life (school, work, scheduled activities) and personal sleep preferences. So if you like to wake up at 9 a.m., having to be in the office at 8 contributes to social jetlag.
For some, social jetlag might be one reason for the achievement gap between larks and night owls. “Despite somewhat higher cognitive [thinking] ability, evening-oriented individuals do worse in school than their morning-oriented counterparts,” says Anastasiya A. Lipnevich, Ph.D., a researcher and associate professor of educational psychology at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). “This makes sense because evening-oriented individuals are at a disadvantage” in our lark-friendly societies.
With regards to night owls’ tendency toward depression, “essentially, night owl patients have a natural body (circadian) rhythm that’s stuck at a later bedtime, and they struggle to move it earlier to fit standard wake up times,” notes Shelby Harris, PsyD, director of behavioral sleep medicine at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. “Many [of these] people feel that they are different—asleep when the world is awake, and awake when everyone else is asleep—which often leads to more rumination,” Harris says. She is referring to repetitive thinking that is linked with depression.
Furthermore, Harris points out that “there has been research suggesting higher rates of alcohol, caffeine, and drug use in this population,” and alcohol and drug use can contribute to depression. “In addition, a lot of night owls struggle with severe sleep deprivation, since they wake up much earlier than desired to get to school and work, [and/or] take care of family.” Sleep deprivation can also—surprise, surprise!—negatively affect mood.
Genes may have an impact on some personality traits, too. “The same set of genes may influence the tendency to be conscientious and the tendency to be more oriented toward morning activities,” Dr. Lipnevich speculates. “There are initial studies attesting to the heritability of both personality and chronotype.”
But it’s important to distinguish between traits and behavior: “A trait is an individuals’ general tendency to behave in a particular way. It can change over time, but is likely to remain relatively stable over months or years,” Dr. Lipnevich explains. “The degree to which a trait manifests in behavior, however, may fluctuate much more widely over the course of an hour or a day or a week.”
For night owls who are really struggling, “the most important thing to do on your own is to get bright light during the day, and dim all electronics and bright lights within an hour or two of bedtime,” says Harris. “Limit caffeine 8-12 hours before your goal bedtime, and limit alcohol and nicotine at night. Also, some medications can be stimulants, so check on that, too. Try to do calming activities at night, and more alerting activities in the morning and daytime.”
Other treatment options include slowly adjusting your sleep schedule; morning bright light therapy via sunlight or a light box; and/or low (such as 0.5 milligrams) doses of melatonin, a hormone that influences the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Seriously affected night owls should “consider consulting with a sleep doctor, as treatments are often tailored directly toward your own sleep/wake habits,” according to Harris. It’s also important to see a specialist because if therapies aren’t timed properly, the problem could actually get worse, she adds.
Elizabeth Michaelson Monaghan is a NYC-based freelance health writer and editor.