Let There Be LightBox

A Seattleite’s cure for seasonal affective disorder.

By Kathryn Robinson December 19, 2012 Published in the January 2013 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Adam Hancher

One evening last January, I came home from work to find the HappyLight sitting on my dining room table. It instantly depressed me.

“What do you mean I’ve been in a crappy mood for three months?” I grumbled to my husband. (This was how I say thank you in winter.) He had bought the HappyLight off Craigs-list out of compassion for his seasonally afflicted wife and a healthy instinct for self-preservation. Apparently there exist northwesterners who are constitutionally attuned to long, dark winters and incessant cloud cover. I am one of the roughly 20 percent who respond with melancholy. 

About half of those suffer from seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, an intense and diagnosable form of depression. The rest fall somewhere on the continuum I inhabit: sluggish and morose, more than typically into carbs and sleeping, down on myself and less interested in others. Suffering winter blues is like being a solar-driven machine that powers down in darkness. And darkness, here in the January of the 47th parallel, happens roughly 16 hours a day.

The light, about a foot high and six inches wide, perched on my table like a repellently cheerful little purse-dwelling dog in the begging position. Helpfully my husband plugged it in and at once the dog began to yap, metaphorically that is, with a white light so intense it bored right through my eyelids. And that’s mild: This HappyLight’s 4,500 lux of natural spectrum, non-UV light is considerably lower than the 10,000 lux you get from a larger light box or the 100,000 lux that beam out of that mythical Northwest apparition, the sun. 

I was not buying it. “Get this,” I mocked, reading from the HappyLight’s user instructions. “ ‘Do not look directly at the lighted bulb.’ ‘If you feel…as though you have drank [sic] too much coffee, then it may be time to turn the unit off.’ Get over yourself, HappyLight! Who do you think you are—Xanax?” My husband just smiled and positioned the light at an angle, about 18 inches from my face. 

Fifteen minutes later I felt nauseous and jangly. 

Day Two: Since the sick feeling (a documented early side effect of light-box therapy) wore off quickly, I felt safe bringing my HappyLight into work. (Besides, it’s possible the nausea came from the large plate of unisolated variables I had eaten for brunch that morning: namely biscuits with sausage gravy.) The user instructions said “30 minutes to an hour minimum recommended usage,” with no maximum. I kept it blazing for four hours.

Here are some of my scientific findings. 

It may or may not have made me hot. 

It may or may not have made me slightly sunburned on one half of my face.

It may or may not have energized me slightly. That is to say: I skipped my second coffee and didn’t miss it. Good for me, not so good for Howard Schultz. Seattle psychiatrist and light-box researcher Dr. David Avery told me that after he began using a dawn simulator—a light box that mimics sunrise by gradually brightening the room—he was able to ditch coffee altogether. “It’s no accident the major coffee companies began in Seattle,” he said.

Day Five: This day actually dawned brightly on its own—at, you know, whatever, noon—and I could feel the real sunlight boost my spirits. According to Avery, winter blues is a witches’ brew of three elements: a short photo period (length of time from dawn to dusk), reduced morning light (which we need more than evening light to sync up our body clocks), and cloud cover (which diminishes mood.) 

The brightness I felt from the sun made me wonder if snow really could be winter’s own HappyLight, as the ski nuts in my life have long insisted. Skiing isn’t for me; I figured that whatever plagues me isn’t likely to be improved by a full-body cast. But I could no longer argue there was nothing to this strong light thing. In the way one does on a blinding ski slope, I suppose, or in the full-surround luminance of a Caribbean beach—I really did feel lighter hearted. Sunnier, to be exact.

Week Three: Can’t get to work fast enough. Craving HappyLight. Must. Have. HappyLight. (Could this thing be addictive?)

I am already feeling so much more buoyant, it appears that my cute little 4,500 lux must be sufficient. Some naysayers claim that’s not enough, but Avery says science hasn’t yet precisely quantified the effective difference between 4,500 and 10,000 lux—and besides, distance from the eyes is the more important variable. 

Even more important is light from the blue spectrum. According to Avery, emerging research identifies blue wavelengths are best at syncing our circadian rhythms and thus treating winter depression. The good news is that we’re increasingly awash in blue wavelengths, between our LED computer screens and the fluorescent lights we’ve all replaced our incandescents with. The bad news is we’re getting too many blue wavelengths at night, which screws with our body clocks and makes it tough to fall asleep. The best time to take in light, whaddya know, is dawn. 

Good enough for my cavemen relatives, good enough for me. If you’re reading this, husband, there’s a Body Clock 250 Active Dawn Simulator on Craigslist for $80.


Published: January 2013

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