This time of year, people who work indoors get a measly half hour or so of bright light a day. That's compared with about 90 minutes a day in summer. And on darker days, you may reap darker moods. "The sun rises later in winter, so circadian rhythms and sleep/wake signals shift as well," says Michael Terman, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Columbia University. "Yet work tends to stay the same, so you're forced to go to bed and wake up earlier than what feels natural," he says, "a mismatch that can be a formula for depression." Unless you fight back. Whatever the cause of your winter blues, these tips will bring on a brighter state of being -- no matter what it's doing outside.
1. Get outside
Studies suggest that being outdoors encourages mood-boosting behaviors like socializing and exercising, making you feel more alive! Bundle up, build a bonfire and roast s'mores, or skip the treadmill and go ice-skating in your backyard, instead, with a small Personalized Backyard Ice Rink (Hammacher Schlemmer, $210; hammacher.com).
2. Start your day with a lamp
When you begin the day in darkness, your brain may not fully get the message that it's time to switch off sleep hormones like melatonin, among other things. The result: You can't stop hitting Snooze. Wake yourself up by sitting in front of a light box for about 30 minutes. Look for one that delivers 10,000 lux of white illumination, like Carex's Day-Light Classic 10,000 Lux SAD Lamp DL930 ($134, amazon.com). Switch it on, then settle into a comfy chair and sip your java while catching up on e-mail. Not a bad way to start the morning.
3. Try rental therapy
Nabbing this season's It Bag can lift you out of a funk -- at least until the bill comes. To get the same rush minus the sticker shock, why not rent whatever it is you crave? "Renters tend to be happier than buyers because they can upgrade or make changes more often, which extends the exciting period of newness," says Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., author of The Myths of Happiness. You can borrow splashy designer finds for a special event or all month long, usually for as little as $5 a day. Consider these treats: Brent Diamond Pearl Drop Earrings -- for your niece's wedding, perhaps -- are $95 for about three days from adorn.com, or you can grab some arm candy like a Chloé satchel (specific bags and prices may vary) from bagborroworsteal.com.
4. Make a fun playlist
Cue up a smile-inducing playlist, and then really tune in. A recent study from Knox College in Galesburg, IL, found that people perked up PDQ when they listened to lively music while consciously focusing on feeling positive. To get the good vibes flowing, check out stereomood.com/mood/happy, a free streaming service that plugs you into playlists designed to evoke specific emotions. Or try the Mood O'Clock app (99¢ on iTunes), which will wake you up with songs meant to promote whatever outlook you desire (that would be joyful, no?).
5. Surround yourself with happy hues
When skies are dour, surround yourself with vivid pops of green and yellow. "Two of the happiest, most energizing colors are yellow and green with a slight yellow undertone; they remind us of the sun," says Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute. To incorporate these bright hues into your work or living space without spending a fortune, fill a bowl or glass canister with fresh lemons and limes, frame wallpaper remnants, or line the backs of bookshelves with colorful contact paper. If your furniture is looking a bit tired, give it a sunny makeover: Repaint a humdrum pine chest with Pantone's Green Flash or Lemon Zest, each predicted to be big for spring.
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6. Plot your getaway
Even if you can't take time off from work now, plan a vacation. "Ironically, you sometimes get even more pleasure from the anticipation than from the actual event," says Christine Carter, Ph.D., author of Raising Happiness. (For one thing, you won't have any crowded airports to deal with.) Ride that wave of pre-vacation excitement by browsing pinterest.com/virtualtourist/here-there-and-everywhere for inspirational travel snaps. Once you set your sights on a destination -- Capri in 2015? -- log on to planapple.com to brainstorm your dream itinerary.
7. Write yourself a peppy note
Nurture your inner optimist by scribbling a sentence or two about your favorite moment (or hour) of the week on a kitchen chalkboard or on rotating Post-its (e.g., Girls' night out + doubled over with laughter + lobster mac 'n' cheese = a memorable dinner! Must do it again soon!). "When you choose to replay happy memories on a regular basis, you adopt a more positive perspective on your whole life," says Lyubomirsky. Not to mention that you'll get a tiny pleasure hit every time you pass by your cheery little reminders.
8. Snack happy
Ditch your buds Ben and Jerry for a smoothie that delivers a dose of tryptophan, an essential amino acid used by the body to produce serotonin (the happiness hormone). Some experts believe it may help stifle gloom while improving sleep. Blend 2 Tbsp. creamy natural peanut butter, 1/4 cup pumpkin seeds, 1/2 cup low-fat milk, 1/2 ripe banana, and three ice cubes. Sip and smile.
9. Do good, feel good
Spend a few hours fixing up a park or tutoring underprivileged kids. People who give to a cause in a personal way (rather than just sending a check) relish a deeper sense of happiness, found a study at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. No time to volunteer? Instead of depositing your used clothing in an anonymous bin, drop it off at a women's shelter so you'll have a better sense of whom you're helping.
10. Bring the beach home
You know how refreshed you feel by the sea? Ocean air is pumped with negative ions, which may amp up blood oxygenation, leaving you calmer and happier, notes Terman, coauthor of Reset Your Inner Clock: The Drug-Free Way to Your Best-Ever Sleep, Mood, and Energy. In contrast, indoor HVAC systems deplete ion concentration, which is why you may feel lethargic when you're stuck inside. Create instant ocean air with an ionic purifier, like the FreshAir Negative Air Ionization System (cet.org; $165). Program it to run for 90 minutes before you wake up.
11. Treat your fam to a "snow day"
No flakes in the forecast? You can still treat the whole family to an old-fashioned snow day. "Any time you bolster your family bonds, you're apt to improve your mood -- the best predictor of your overall happiness is the strength of your connections," says Carter. Curl up as a family and watch feel-good faves like Breakfast at Tiffany's or The Sound of Music. Just try to frown at Audrey Hepburn or Julie Andrews!
- By Mariel Goodson
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