By Batya Ross, MFT
Have you ever noticed how external factors, such lighting, sound, or smells impact how you feel inside? Whether it’s candlelight, moonlight, or a beautifully sunny day, lighting can really set the tone for what feels possible. An interior designer will tell you that a well placed lamp could make a room, but is there more to lighting than just aesthetics? According to environmental psychologist Rikark Küller and his associates in Sweden, there is a direct correlation between the light you are exposed to and your mood. These researchers wanted to understand how people responded to variances in lighting. They found that the story of Goldilocks still bares truth, too much or too little light can elicit lower feeling states such as anxiety or depression. And when lighting is within the “just right” range a person’s mood improves.
Light helps regulate the body by sending messages about when to be alert or when to relax. The messages are important because they support the body’s ability to operate properly. We can use external stimuli– such as light– to support the tasks we set out to do or the ways we want to feel. When supported, the body and being can adjust and meet the new intention.
Here are three tips for optimizing the uplifting properties of light
Spend some time outdoors. Sunlight prompts the body to make its own vitamin D, whose role it is to keep bones strong by increasing absorption of calcium. Studies about the vitamin’s impact on mood are inconclusive but Sue Pavlovich from the Seasonal Affective Disorder Association (SADA) says “getting outside for a walk in your lunch hour, even in the winter sun will be good for you. This is because surrounding light, which is outside light that envelops you, is always better than artificial light because it’s stronger and brighter.” The bright light supports the body’s ability to focus and stay alert. A walk outside can replace your morning coffee and support the strength of your body.
Limit screen time before sleep. Screens (TVs, computers, phones) play an important role in modern life. We are exposed to high levels of light which can confuse our bodies. Bright artificial light can actually reduce melatonin, the hormone that supports sleep. It is recommended to limit the use of screens before bed in order to help with falling and staying asleep. Smartphones have already begun to account for this problem. The Twilight app, for one, lowers and changes the light coming through the screen. Beyond dimness, the app colorizes your display with various tints of red. This sends messages to your body that the sun is setting and that it is time to begin slowing down for rest. Users report instantly feeling lower levels of stress when looking at the red light versus the regular blue light. Try to avoid or at least dim screens 45 minutes before bed.
Experiment with various light bulbs, lamps and color. In most apartments and homes the overhead light is too bright. This can be rectified with lamps or changing the wattage of the light bulbs. Most people do not control the lighting at the workplace but Küller noted that even in environments where lighting is either too dark or too light subjects had a more positive mood when “good color design” was introduced. Colors absorbs light on a spectrum. This means that you can trick your eyes to see different light when put alongside color. If you can’t change the lamp, then change the color.
It is not just about the amount of light at specific times of the day, but the quality of that light. Preferences and natural sensitivities vary from person to person. Mindfulness can be a helpful tool for finding out what is best for you. Take note of the lighting when you feel calm or anxious. This information will guide you in understanding your personal preferences. Staying connected to the sensations you feel can show you both, what kind of external lighting you respond to, and that you have agency in taking care of your internal experience by honoring your preferences in the external environment.