Try Light Therapy to Beat the Winter Blues

You’ve heard of SAD—seasonal affective disorder; a condition causing intense irritability, lack of energy, and an unceasing craving for carbs. You probably don’t have it, but that doesn’t mean your winter blues aren’t real: Each year, about half of Americans report feeling down once it gets cold. (The rest moved to L.A.) So we’ve compiled fancy gadgets, restorative beauty products, and therapeutic advice to help you get through.

Eighteen months ago, the Internet company where I work moved into a new office. I wound up in a windowless pod along with a dozen other people. Since then, we’ve been engulfed in fluorescent-lit gloom. It’s worse now that it gets dim outside long before we leave work. Without a sense of the sun’s progression, strange things happen: Time stretches like taffy, energy dips, and mealtimes are forgotten entirely.

Research has shown that light exposure affects mood, sleep, and cognitive performance. A recent study from Northwestern and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that employees stationed in windowless zones slept 46 minutes fewer at night than employees near windows, with worse sleep quality and decreased daytime physical activity. Light also affects productivity: A 2003 study by the California Energy Commission found that window-facing employees at a Sacramento call center processed up to 12 percent more calls than their benighted peers. I’m clearly not the only person who feels like a flaccid slug Monday through Friday.

The science on light therapy is pretty clear. Thirty-minute sessions with a standard 10,000-lux lamp—20 times brighter than the strongest task lamp—have been shown to significantly ease symptoms, with one study finding it as effective as Prozac in improving mood and energy levels. Still, installing one of these at your workplace means copping to feeling down. You must also be willing to subject cubemates to what’s basically an indoor floodlight.

I was too depressed to care. So when winter came, I decided to test out a NatureBright SunTouch, among the best-reviewed options online. It came with a reasonable return policy; I was reluctant to concede that my mood might be affected by the nuances of ambient light. I’m a human, not a flower.

After 10 minutes of light exposure, I was giggly. An almost imperceptible hum radiated from the lamp, like the sound of a refrigerator in the next room. Twenty minutes in, I felt lightly buzzed. My lips naturally curled northward; it was easier to smile than not smile. After the prescribed half-hour I switched it off and went for a stroll around the office. Phantom peach-colored clouds appeared in my peripheral vision, but I was otherwise unharmed. I jauntily jingled the change in my pocket. If I knew how to whistle, I would have.

Initially I’d worried that the presence of a SAD lamp would make me feel sad—that beneath its blank, blue gaze I’d feel like a humanoid in some pulp-fiction dystopia, consuming meat pellets for nutrition and engaging in pleasureless robotic tasks. But after 10 days of morning use, my sleep schedule has improved. I’m no longer craving the free office marshmallows. My pod peers are even asking to borrow the lamp, so we’ve started a rotation. Sure, some co-workers give us curious looks, but we coldly ignore them. We’re too busy getting stuff done. Placebo effect? Could be, but it’s a good one.