Being in natural light improves mood, increases happiness

Dear Doctors: My company called the employees back to the office, and I’m dreading it. There aren’t many windows, and it’s all fluorescent lights. Being able to be outdoors while working from home has been great. I know I’m less depressed when I get to be in daylight. Is there any science behind that?

Dear Reader: Yes. Decades of studies have shown that natural light has a powerful, and often positive, effect not only on mental health, but also on physical health and general well-being.

It’s something that most of us know intuitively, and it also is reflected in public opinion. A few years ago, a survey of 1,600 office workers in North America found that instead of fancy perks like in-house gyms, nap pods or chef-run cafes, a more basic desire topped employee wish lists: consistent access to both natural light and views of the outdoors. More than one-third of the respondents reported being in your situation, with either limited or no natural light in their immediate workspace. And half of those surveyed agreed that when they spent hours in an office with limited natural light, it adversely affected their mood, productivity and sleep.

These opinions echo the results of a fascinating study in which female workers were divided between two offices, one with windows and one without. Based on analysis of the participants’ stress hormones, melatonin levels and answers to a questionnaire, working in an office without natural light was associated with poor sleep, low mood and depression.

Elizabeth Ko, MD and Eve Glazier, MD

Now, a large new study continues to connect time spent outdoors to improved mental health and sleep. Conducted in Great Britain and published last December in the Journal of Affective Disorders, the research analyzes data gathered from 500,000 women and men between 37 and 73 years old. The individuals included in the study reported that they spend about 2.5 hours outdoors each day. Using medical information and outcomes about the group, researchers found that each additional hour spent outside in natural light was linked to a corresponding decrease in the risk of developing long-term depression. They also saw reduced use of antidepressants, as well as self-reported improvements to mood and general feelings of happiness. An interesting aspect of these findings is that while they were tied to increases in the time spent outdoors in daylight, the results proved to be independent of other variables such as lifestyle and social or economic status.

While this research validates your personal experience, it doesn’t change your situation. However, there are a few steps you can take to mitigate at least some of the ill effects. Some people find that adding a desk lamp outfitted with a full-spectrum bulb can ease the effects of harsh overhead fluorescent lights. Once you’re back at work, make it a goal to spend time in natural light. Use breaks and your lunch hour for time outside. Adding exercise, like a brisk walk, will boost mood in multiple ways. We know it’s not a perfect tradeoff, but until our workplaces catch up with the research, it’s the best we indoor workers can do.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o UCLA Health Sciences Media Relations, 10960 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1955, Los Angeles, CA, 90024. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)


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