Seasonal Affective Disorder

Boost Your Happiness Quotient

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By Stacy Leatherwood Cannon, M.D.

In the dead of winter — with cold days and limited sunlight — it’s not uncommon to feel, well, blue. In fact, studies confirm that without enough sunshine, the brain doesn’t release as many mood-boosting chemicals, including a “feel-good” hormone called serotonin.

The good news? There are a number of things you can do to lift your mood while winter marches on. Sure, some of these tips may sound indulgent, but your sanity is worth the investment.

Here are 10 strategies to fire up positive feelings and cultivate more happiness in your life:

  1. Get sufficient sleep. Most people underestimate the importance of adequate sleep. Trouble is, everything seems like such a big deal when we’re overtired. Can’t seem to squeeze in the recommended 7 to 9 hours each night? Consider a 20-minute power nap. Taking a nap not only helps boost productivity and alertness, it can be the quickest way to lift your spirits.
  2. Unplug. Silence your cellphone, step away from the computer and turn off the tube. Even if you don’t have time to indulge in a massage, play fetch with your dog or go for an hour-long walk, you can probably squeeze in 10 minutes of quiet time to recharge your batteries. Meditate, take a bath or curl up with a thrilling novel. Whatever you do, take time for YOU!
  3. Get moving. Exercise can instantly lift your spirits. Not only do you get a physical high, but exercise also enhances mood by releasing feel-good chemicals in the brain. In fact, studies suggest that people who are depressed benefit more from regular exercise than commonly prescribed antidepressants.
  4. Take up gardening. Countless studies promote the virtues of getting your hands dirty. In addition to alleviating stress, gardening enhances flexibility, improves mood and provides fresh, healthy produce. Plant an indoor herb garden or learn which fruits and vegetables grow well inside and plan to transfer them outdoors when spring arrives.
  5. Be positive. It may seem like a cliché, but a growing body of research suggests that putting a positive spin on any situation floods the body with those feel-good chemicals. That, in turn, makes you feel happier. So instead of tuning into the negative voice that says, “you’re not doing enough,” focus on what you accomplished during the day—even if it’s only taking that much-needed nap!
  6. Pay it forward. When you serve other people, either by volunteering or just by doing something nice, it not only benefits those you serve, it makes you feel better, too. So spend an afternoon feeding the hungry at a soup kitchen, buy a sandwich for a homeless person or give flowers to a stranger. Studies show that people who step up in these ways are not only happier, they’re healthier, too.
  7. Practice mindfulness. Too often we’re being beeped, tweeted and texted, and we’re not present in our own lives. Practicing mindfulness allows you to focus only on your experience in that moment. And studies show this form of practice remarkably improves both thoughts and feelings. People who practice mindfulness regularly often report less stress, a greater sense of well-being and increased feelings of kindness and compassion toward others.
  8. Express gratitude. Studies consistently show that counting your blessings, instead of focusing on what’s missing, promotes a greater sense of happiness. Feeling stressed and grumpy? Step away, take a few deep breaths and focus on what you’re grateful for. Tell friends, loved ones and colleagues how much you value them. Give thanks for the food on your plate. It doesn’t matter how you express your gratitude (for example, by email, phone or in a silent prayer). What matters is that you take stock of the riches in your life.
  9. Spend time with loved ones. Happy people tend to spend most of their time with other people. Social outings feed the soul, even when they don’t revolve around food. Go for a hike or take a walk in the mall. It doesn’t matter what you do, just spend time with the people who make you feel good.
  10. Make time to prioritize. In today’s fast-paced world, it’s not uncommon to overschedule yourself. Take some time to re-evaluate your life and prioritize the activities and people who bring you joy.

Not sure where to get started? Do one thing that represents a positive change for 30 days, and see where it takes you. Who knows? After the month is up, you may have established a life-changing habit.

If you are concerned that your winter blues could be seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or depression, talk to your doctor about your symptoms. And if you’re in need of a primary care physician, visit henryford.com.