Happy Hacks: Four Ways to Improve Your Mood as the Days Get Shorter

It seems as when the days get shorter so does my temper. I swear something about it being pitch black with the stars glistening at 4 pm doesn’t sit right with me. It’s almost as if I can feel my irritability rise, mood drop, and depression tank on the first overcast day. Each year I am determined, feeling confident, “I will make this winter different”. Yet mid-February strikes, and it’s as if the clouds have taken permanent residence in my brain no matter how close I sit next to a bright light. 

Instead of waiting for “the shortest day of the year,” I’ve decided to be proactive and break down exactly what chemicals my brain needs to survive, which in theory should help increase my mood. 

  • Dopamine
    • Why I need it: Dopamine is the reward chemical; it makes you feel good. If you find yourself anxiously procrastinating more than usual, unable to clean up, put dishes away, or just in overall hopelessness, you may lack dopamine. When we are experiencing deep mental fatigue, we often need more dopamine to get us motivated and moving.
    • How I get it: GOOD NEWS, you can stimulate dopamine in so many different ways. Since it is our reward pathway, we want to feel accomplished. This may look like making a small list of tasks and completing them all, unloading the dishwasher that’s been sitting for 2 days, or even sending that email we’ve been dreading. Checking something off your list is a great place to start. This winter, try something new, take a different route home from work, try a new coffee syrup or even a new recipe off Pinterest. Anything that will throw your routine slightly off to get your brain wondering. The wandering brain helps our brain stay fresh and sharp, away from autopilot mode. It doesn’t have to be complicated. This will also increase concentration since we are absorbing new info and keeping our brain on edge.
  • Serotonin
    • Why I need it:  The mood stabilizer, aka happy chemical. Experiencing irritability, extra sensitivity, depression, or frequent mood swings? It could be low on serotonin. Serotonin’s job is to keep our senses in check, to keep us alert, well-regulated, and to have a stable appetite. Having an increase in stress and a decrease in sleep can lead to lower serotonin levels. 
    • How I get it: To get more serotonin, we need sunlight, exercise, and healthy eating. I think those are some of the most challenging requests, especially when it’s 10 degrees outside and overcast for the 5th day in a row. Or when warm comfort food on the couch sounds like a better idea than a spinach salad.
    •  This is where the challenge takes place. This winter, try getting up with the sun. I know. Sounds brutal. But as a veteran, “I think 9 am is too early for a meeting”, stay up late..sleep in later type of person, I can almost confidently say this helps. Think.. so you need sunlight and exercise, how will that happen after my 9-5? It won’t. Then after work, it will be dark, and you will be exhausted. This leaves your 5-9 time block to dedicate to taking care of yourself. Then go to work, and you have your evening to enjoy yourself guilt-free while keeping your mental health in check and relaxing how you like. Just give it a month, 1 month of waking up with the sunrise, admiring its beauty, going to the gym, on a walk, or a quick home workout on youtube. You will feel much more awake and accomplished before your work day officially begins. Plus, telling other people you work out before work is something you should feel very proud of and makes you feel powerful for taking control of your time. Holding yourself accountable is essential and builds mental stamina.
  • Oxytocin
    • Why I need it: The love hormone. First, gross. Second, humans physically and mentally need connectedness and to be bonded to survive. Find yourself feeling disconnected, anxious, low energy, and lonely? Oxytocin could be the culprit. If your coping mechanism is self-isolation, this could be not easy to embrace, but here are some ideas of where to start.
    • How I get it: As a non-hugger type of person, this is challenging for me, but hug more often. Next time you see a friend, go in for the embrace, even 5-10 seconds can give you that boost of oxytocin. Otherwise, petting a dog (my preferred technique), hanging out with friends, or going out of your way for a loved one can strengthen these bonds. Even sending a text to a friend you haven’t heard from in a while can make someone know you were thinking about them. This winter, you could plan a night in with your friends (or pet), order pizza, and watch a movie together to create this intentional bonding time. Nowadays it’s almost trendy not to show affection, act like you care, or have hyper-independence. Thinking you don’t need help or support from others can be freeing, but it doesn’t mean we need to isolate ourselves from people who care about us. This needs to change. In a world full of so much hurt, the least we can do is show the ones around us that we value them. 
  • Endorphins
    • Why I need it: Have you ever felt like you were on top of the world, just completed an impossible workout without dying, carried all the groceries up in one trip, or lifted a car off a pedestrian? Those are your endorphins at work. The natural pain reliever. They assist with the flight or fight response and work directly to dilate your air passage and restrict blood vessels. When your endorphins are pumping, you biologically have a physical response to enhance your performance. With too little endorphins, we may feel extra achy, impulsive, and stressed on top of anxiety/depression.
    • How I get it: We’ve got to move to release more endorphins. Try taking the stairs more often to get your heart beating. Maybe try a heated yoga class this winter. Or gather some friends and go to a comedy club. Allowing yourself to laugh and move your body helps increase endorphins making our lives run smoother. In the winter, this could look like embracing your inner child and going sledding when it snows, followed by a snowball fight. The younger version of yourself will be proud, and you’ll feel better mentally and physically after getting some fresh air. 

***Disclaimer: In addition to the science, I will continue doing my DIY rituals to get myself through the long dark winter months. These are not scientifically proven, but they haven’t let me down yet. Because if buying winter-themed throw pillows and lighting Fraser Fir candles while sipping hot chocolate by the fire can’t make you (temporarily) happy, I’m not sure what will (kidding…kinda)? 

By Kennedy Baker, CIT