Let there be light: How I conquered the dark days
Can money buy happiness, a sense of self-worth, optimism? I was counting on it, looking for happiness in a box, the one that had just landed on my back porch. It was late November, and my joie de vivre was circling the drain.
It happens every year. When darkness closes in, as the days grow suffocatingly short, my idea of a good time is to burrow deep below my comforter, suspended on a sea of memory foam. Even when the weak winter sun is shining, it’s hard to buckle down and get things done. My mind wanders from the task at hand, and the question that arises again and again: What’s the point?
And all too often, the siren song of carbohydrates becomes irresistible, as a batch of warm chocolate chip cookies– I think of them as culinary heroin– becomes a quick fix in the quest for a lighter mood.
Spring and summer are a different story. With longer days, the world becomes a benevolent place. Hope and happiness are right there; I don’t have to look for them. But pretty soon, I’m flipping the lights on by 4pm, it’s dark so early, and it feels like we should all complain to the authorities. Surely, there’s something to be done about this: a referendum, or maybe a Constitutional Amendment.
Around the world, in regions far from the equator, millions of people share this experience of the “winter blues,” a condition brought on by diminished daylight. The lack of bright sunlight appears to disrupt the availability of the hormone melatonin, as well as the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine. Melancholy, lethargy, and weight gain are wintertime companions for those whose brain chemistry waxes and wanes with the changing seasons.
For some, the symptoms are severe enough to be labeled “Seasonal Affective Disorder,” and require professional intervention. For the rest of us, non-prescription strategies like exercise and taking melatonin supplements can offer some relief. The idea is to fix the errant brain chemicals, one way or the other, and bring back the mood and behavior enjoyed during the sunny months.
(Doesn’t this make you wonder what personality really is, anyway? We figure everyone has control over how they feel and what they do. And maybe that’s true for most people. But there are significant variables, like this involuntary reaction to annual light deprivation, and other kinds of messed-up brain chemistry caused by junk food, genetics, lack of sleep, heartbreak, and God knows what else.)
Since light is what I’m missing in the winter, it made sense to use the remedy that brings it back. Alas, my budget didn’t allow for a trip to the tropics, so I chose the next best thing: a powerful lamp designed to treat the winter blues.
The day the light box arrived, I felt a little foolish for thinking that some gadget could, quite literally, bring me back to happiness. After sliding it out of the box, I noted that it was about the size of a brownie pan. Inside it were three white-light providing, compact fluorescent bulbs.
According to the directions, in order to get the full benefit and bask in the glow of all 10,000 lux (whatever those are– I looked it up, and still couldn’t tell you) for twenty to thirty minutes each morning you have to remain about one foot from the light.
Hmm. That’s pretty close, and for a significant stretch of time. It comes with a stand, so you could set it up to shine down over your computer, or over your Cheerios. Or both.
After plugging it in to make sure it arrived in good working order, I discovered that the meaning of “10,000 lux” must be “wicked bright.” This would take some getting used to.
I sized up various placement possibilities in our house and settled upon mounting it on the wall perpendicular to the bathroom mirror.
For years, it's been taking me at least twenty minutes to pull myself together in the morning. Suddenly, my high-maintenance habits of daily blow-drying, flat-ironing, and makeup application were a plus. Now, I could multitask, tending to both exterior and interior maintenance.
By the time I’d attached the thing to the wall, it was mid-afternoon. Too late, in theory, to do the recommended morning bask. Undeterred, I flipped the switch and basked (if one can be said to bask while standing up) for maybe half an hour.
I then turned it off and wondered when the happiness would start. Nothing. My already-low sense of self-worth was sinking further. And now, I had to explain to my husband why there was a klieg light hanging on our bathroom wall.
What was I thinking? Money does not buy happiness, and it certainly does not come sealed up in a box from Amazon.com. Rather than packing it back up and returning it, I figured I’d give it a few days.
The following morning, as directed, I stood in the glow of the light box for over twenty minutes. Still nothing.
However, that afternoon, something changed. I stood a little taller, as though some invisible, weighty layer had lifted. Someone was humming – it was me. I was looking forward to checking off items on my “to do” list, and thinking of other stuff I also wanted to tackle.
Oh, right: happiness, optimism, self-worth. I remember those! I felt like I should contact anyone I had bummed out or let down during one of my annual light-deprived stupors and apologize.
This happened a year ago. Ever since that first day, when I opened the box and wondered whether I was an idiot for thinking it could bring happiness, I have faithfully placed myself in the light every morning. It’s still working.
So, can money buy happiness? Apparently, it can.
Janis Jaquith pens her essays from a now light-infused dwelling in Free Union.Read more on: season affective disorder