All-nighters are a uniquely collegiate form of misery—self-indulgent, unhealthy and (in theory) fully avoidable. They are “what you won’t remember” about college, the unimportant striving and desperate work that detracts from “real” growth and experience. They suck, and most of us have experienced our fair share. Although they’re hopefully the last thing on our minds in the middle of fall break, it’s worth considering the beauty that can be found in even this aspect of the typical college experience.
But first, I must acknowledge that my mother is right, as always: staying up all night to finish schoolwork (or anything) is not good for you. Sleep deprivation impairs memory and mental acuity while making it more likely to get sick. More perniciously, chronic sleeplessness has been found to lower people’s ability to perceive just how
impaired they are.
Those of us who pull all-nighters know this. That doesn’t stop us from insisting that we thrive under pressure or need the stress to get us going. This is one of many lies that college students tell themselves—like “I’ll work better after I play Pokémon” or “I’m not an alcoholic.” The only reason we think this model of creating pseudo-crises and overcoming them in the adrenaline rush of panic works is because it’s what we’ve gotten used to, and we’ve usually gotten away with it. It would be better if none of us did all-nighters, but the fact is that we do, so there’s value in analyzing them.
All-nighters of another sort, those we pull with our friends working out the details of life and the universe, need no defense. Neither do those that are purely recreational or include taking bikes through the Taco Bell drive-through. The ability to stay up all night pursuing happiness or nothing of consequence is something we should cherish while we still can. It’s worth remembering what these nights have in common with those that involve a descent into the sublimely depressive confines of the Kirk Basement Lab.
The most obvious similarity is that they both create the illusion of the ability to defy time. An all-nighter gives you the ability to bypass the confines of a normal day, opening up a previously unexplored reserve of possible useable hours. It feels like a cheat-code, a way to step out of the normal rules of the game. It can make a hopeless amount of work or an impossible deadline enter the realm of possibility. Even if it isn’t actually fun, and even if it’s manifestly terrible for your health, that thrilling feeling of defying limits comes through.
If sleep is the cousin of death, defying it is the closest we can get to immortality in our daily lives. In its minor asceticism, denying yourself the simple everyday pleasure of a good night’s sleep in pursuit of a goal is a way of elevating your higher self, the self with the ability to deny instinct, to the forefront. In a small way, denying biology for something as voluntary as a college assignment asserts our autonomy and denies our mortality.
All-nighters are also a way of creating excitement in an otherwise mundane activity. The feeling of overcoming a challenge of your own making, of coming through in the clutch, is ultimately a dangerous one—it’s not a something you want to get used to using as motivation. At the same time, if you’re forced into an all-nighter, as most people are, the feeling of a do-or-die battle with your own bad habits and an intellectual project can give the experience of grinding out a paper the air of a quest. Emerging from a self-imposed hellish cloister of caffeine, completed work in hand, gives you the risk-free thrill of facing an entirely illusionary danger.
There’s also a higher thrill than this false risk: intellectual creation. All of us (hopefully) have at least a semblance of real interest in our studies, and though the desperation of all-nighters has a tendency to shove that interest away, it can sneak up when we least expect it. There are those transcendent moments where we lose track of time, where 2:00 a.m. becomes 5:00 a.m. seemingly immediately after we realize that Russian children’s cartoons, or the sociology of work, are actually pretty cool things to get the chance to learn about. Though there’s nothing stopping these moments from happening at a more reasonable hour, there’s something magic about being swept off into the mysterious solitary expanse of the night by an idea you didn’t even see coming.
All that said, sometimes there’s nothing there but you, your bad choices and the blank page, and it really is unadulterated, if small-scale, misery. In those situations, consider those small pleasures of staying up all night that would come even if you were researching the most effective way to clip your fingernails. Sleep deprivation creates a sense of minor euphoria and disassociation that can add some addled color to an otherwise boring or stressful day. There’s nothing like feeling the crisp breeze at five in the morning while listening to birds sing louder than you ever remembered, watching the sun come up. And most importantly, there’s the relief of just being done with it, moving forward into another bright new day.