“SETTLE BACK and clear your mind,” Harry Styles says softly. A piano tinkles in the background; violins play languorous notes. “We’re heading somewhere special, beyond the world of consciousness, to places more celestial.” This is not a strange opening gambit to one of Mr Styles’s concerts. Instead, “Dream With Me” is a short story released on July 8th, in which the pop star (pictured) narrates a journey past a babbling brook, a forest, a gleaming lake, a cabin and an island. The aim is to send people to sleep in 39 minutes using only comforting words and gentle music.
Calm, a mindfulness app with 80m downloads valued at more than $1bn, has cornered the market on bedtime stories for adults. The idea was born when analysts looked at usage data and found that people were searching for guided meditations at around 10.30pm—and that the pattern was consistent across time zones. It became clear that people sought a means to unwind and help with dozing off, says Chris Advansun, a former screenwriter who became the head of Sleep Stories. In 2016 Calm released a collection of 23 recordings. There are now more than 200 to choose from, spanning travel writing, sport and fairy-tales, and they have been listened to more than 250m times. As well as Mr Styles, celebrity narrators include Matthew McConaughey (whose charming Texan drawl has proved particularly popular with listeners), Nick Offerman, Stephen Fry, Laura Dern and Joanna Lumley.
Even though most are only around 30 minutes long, the stories are designed not to be finished. “Storytelling in the bedtime context is tricky because as writers we’re trained to be engaging and to hook attention…and to use the tools of drama and conflict and so on,” Mr Advansun says. “We needed to set a lot of that aside.” The point is not that the stories are boring, exactly, but that they are not gripping. The most popular format is that of a journey—one devoid of action, conflict or tension—which is a vehicle for rich sensory descriptions and ambient sounds. That engages listeners’ imagination and, in so doing, allows them to escape what psychologists call “the cycle of rumination” on anxious thoughts that keeps people tossing and turning at night.
Phoebe Smith is one of many writers on Calm’s books and she adapts her own travel journalism to fit the somnolent format. She estimates that she has written between 20 and 30 sleep stories, including “Morocco’s Hidden Forest”, “Crossing Australia by Train” and “Wild Ponies of Chincoteague”. The details that usually do not make it into her articles—the sounds and smells of a place or the texture of a tree—become a crucial part of these narratives, as do the rhythm and poetry of the sentences. She is careful to make sure there are no jarring sounds or images which might jolt a listener awake. (When writing “The Jungles of Madagascar”, for example, she omitted examples of the less popular wildlife as “people might be freaked out if I mention the snakes!”) A past sufferer of insomnia herself, Ms Smith reckoned that there was “probably something in this” when she fell asleep listening to the recording of her first story.
The demand for these peaceful yarns has increased sharply during covid-19. Surveys conducted by King’s College London and Ipsos MORI found that half of Britons had more disturbed sleep than usual in lockdown. Nearly two-thirds of those who think they are certain or very likely to face financial problems due to the coronavirus are having trouble nodding off. A study of Americans by SleepStandards, a research outfit, found that 67% believed their sleep was healthier before the beginning of lockdown. Mr Advansun says that the rate at which Calm adds new users has doubled since March.
Many doubtless find some nostalgic comfort in a sleep story. Both Mr Advansun and Ms Smith hope that listening to them replicates the childhood experience of cosying up to someone familiar whose voice is soft and soothing. For Mr Styles’s high-spirited young fans, however, hearing his voice inviting them to “hold hands” and “snuggle for endless hours” may well have a different effect altogether.
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