The transformative power of sunlight
As anyone who has gazed at the sun rising or setting can attest, sunlight can have a transformative effect on us, inspiring a sense of awe and wonder. During the winter months though, getting even five minutes of the sun’s rays on our skin can be challenging. For many of us, short days, busy schedules and artificially- lit homes and offices mean a hankering for Netflix, duvets and hot chocolate. Yes, it’s the season of the winter blues when we feel tired, unmotivated and, in extreme cases, depressed.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is a complex type of depression that generally occurs in the winter months. In the UK, about three percent of the population are estimated to suffer from SAD, which can cause problems with sleep, carbohydrate cravings leading to weight gain and, in extreme cases, a complete inability to carry out a normal routine. Research is still patchy on exactly what causes SAD, though it is most likely triggered by lack of sunlight, which influences levels of the hormones melatonin and serotonin in the part of the brain controlling mood, sleep and appetite — our circadian rhythms.
The antidote to our northern hemisphere woes is, of course, light. In Scandinavia, seasonal peaks of sorrow brought about by the almost complete absence of sunlight in winter are recorded as far back as the sixth century. There is a long history of inventive solutions to combat this sadness. In 1928 in southern Norway, a cable car was gifted to the townspeople so that they could get high enough to soak up some sunlight in winter.
Resetting our natural rhythm
Today, experiments with giant mirrors positioned mountainside to direct sunlight into dark valley towns, light-therapy clinics, and even positive thinking are tested to beat the blues. In schools, ceiling lights that change in colour and intensity to simulate being outside on a bright day in springtime are being trialled too. Developed by a company called BrainLit, the ultimate goal is to create a system that is tailored to the individual, monitoring the type of light they’ve been exposed to through the course of a day and then adjusting the lights to optimise their health and productivity. Light experiments aside, could a shift towards a more positive regard of winter darkness be just as important? Judging by the popularity of the Hygge trend in the UK last year, yes. More than sheep-skin rugs, socks and tea-lights, this defining characteristic of Danish culture aims to engender a feeling of contentment and well-being by creating cosiness and comfortable opportunities for connection.
For serious cases of SAD though, a daily dose is needed. The Royal College of Psychiatrists strongly recommends seeking as much exposure to natural light as possible in winter. Bright light in the morning is particularly effective as it suppresses any residual melatonin that could be making us sleepy, and provides a signal to the brain’s master clock that keeps it synchronised with the 24-hour cycle of light and dark. The idea is it therefore strengthens our internal rhythms, so that when night comes around again, we feel sleepy at the correct time. Our brains have not caught up with our contemporary lifestyles of working inside an office all day long, so something as small as a morning walk (preferably in a natural setting) and taking a lunch-break outdoors can make a difference to our feelings of wellbeing. Many people also find using a specialist light box containing very bright fluorescent tubes which mimic the sun’s rays to be an effective treatment.
Light in literature, symbolism, and spiritual celebration
It’s no wonder that depression is often expressed in terms of darkness. The ‘dark night of the soul’ is a term that goes back centuries to mean a loss of hope and deep sense of meaningless. Winston Churchill famously referred to his malady as the ‘black dog’, while one of the first very public accounts of the descent into the depths of clinical depression and back was the 1989 memoir by American novelist and essayist, William Styron, aptly named, Darkness Visible.
Equally, the symbolism of light and shade has inspired countless visionaries, writers and artists as a means of expressing what it is to be a messy and flawed human. Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous anti-racism sermon represented love as light in a powerful invitation to love your enemy saying, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” In fiction too, the concept of light as a positive force within us is utilised by author, J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Sirius Black shares a valuable lesson about free will saying to Harry “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”
Light is a universally understood symbol; Whoever you are and wherever you live, you know when the sun appears, it is time to rise (and hopefully shine). It expresses so beautifully the power of polarities: good and bad; day and night; masculine and feminine; struggle and peace – and the (sometimes frustrating) impossibility of having one without the other. Shame and vulnerability researcher and best-selling author of Rising Strong, Brené Brown, expresses these sentiments perfectly in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection writing, “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy — the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
It is no surprise then, that the redemptive power of light and rituals designed to worship it are a mainstay of many religious practices, particularly at this time of year.
For Christians, preparations for Christmas involve lighting candles in honour of the birth of Jesus, who they believe is the light of the world. I was raised in the Christian tradition and have vivid memories of Christingle (Christ light) services on Christmas Eve. I can still feel a sticky orange in my hands, trying desperately not to burn myself on the candle pushed into its centre or drop the sweets stuck into it with cocktail sticks. Of course I was more concerned with sweets than Jesus’ light, but as rituals go, it’s one of the sweetest in my memory.
One of the biggest light festivals in the world though is Diwali, the festival of light celebrated by Hindus, which takes place between mid-October and mid-November. The festival involves lighting small clay lamps for five days and nights to signify the triumph of good over evil.
Jewish people around the world celebrate their Festival of Light, also known as Hanukkah, over eight days in November or December to commemorate a miracle believed to have taken place when the Temple in Jerusalem needed to be re-dedicated after a war. There was only enough oil to light the menorah for one day but it remained lit for the eight needed to prepare new oil. During Hanukkah, a nine-branched candelabrum, based on the original menorah, is lit every evening at nightfall with the ninth candle in the middle used to light the others.
Luckily for Londoners, making friends with winter is that much easier as free outdoor light festival, Lumiere, is back on our streets in January 2018, with installations once again in King’s Cross. It may be artificial, but the artworks on display are anything but dull. Last year’s event saw Granary Square transformed with a giant screen for a lightshow circus and this year’s festival promises to be even bigger and brighter. Light therapy indeed.
Whether you choose to worship the sun by the pool in a country closer to the equator to banish the winter blues, or participate in a light festival closer to home, light at this time of year takes on a special significance.
I’ll be working with the rhythms of nature using a more modern invention; Cold, dark mornings are made much more bearable with the gentle simulated sunrise of my Lumie alarm clock. Morning walk, religious ritual or lightbox therapy, however you take it, make time for a daily dose of light this winter.
This article first appeared in the winter 2017 edition of King’s Cross Quarterly magazine. Read more about the people and stories that make King’s Cross, or find out where you can pick up the latest copy of King’s Cross Quarterly below.