Most of us don’t put much thought into the way light might be affecting our mood. But if you find yourself smiling on sunny days or feeling more creative with the lights turned down low, it’s no coincidence. The different kinds of light we’re exposed to can have a real impact on our emotional health and wellbeing. Here are six ways light can affect your emotions.
1. BRIGHT LIGHT CAN HEIGHTEN EMOTIONS.
We may experience both positive and negative emotions more intensely under brighter lights. In a 2014 study, researchers asked volunteers to assess the aggressiveness of a fictional person, the attractiveness of three women, and the appeal of different spicy chicken wing sauces. They also asked volunteers to report how they felt about a series of positive, negative, and neutral words. Overall, volunteers seated in a brightly lit room judged the character as more aggressive and the women as more attractive than those in a dimly lit room. They also expressed a preference for spicier chicken wing sauces and felt more strongly about positive and negative words. When it came to both negative and positive emotions, the reactions of volunteers were more intense under brighter lights.
2. BLUE LIGHT CAN MAKE US FEEL MORE ENERGETIC …
Exposure to blue light during the day can give us some extra energy and make us more alert. A recent study found that participants who were exposed to short wavelength, high energy blue light were more productive: They were able to complete cognitive tasks more quickly, and more accurately than a control group. Blue light increased their alertness not only during exposure, but for a full half hour after blue light exposure ended.
3. … BUT CAN BECOME A PROBLEM AT BEDTIME.
While blue light can give us a much needed energy boost during the day, it can also make it harder for us to sleep at night. Exposure to blue light from smartphones and laptops in the hours before bedtime suppresses our bodies’ production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, which can make it hard for us to drift off to sleep. As you’ve probably noticed if you’ve ever struggled to fall asleep at night, sleep-deprivation have a whole host of emotional and physiological side effects, from impaired judgment and heightened stress to higher blood pressure. So while blue light can provide a helpful pick-me-up in the morning, you might want to turn off your laptop a few hours before bed.
4. NATURAL LIGHT COULD MAKE YOU HAPPIER …
Catching a few rays of natural sunlight during the day can make a world of difference. One 2014 study found that people who had windows in their office exercised more, got more sleep (on average, 46 minutes more a night!), and had a greater sense of overall wellbeing than those whose offices had no windows. Researchers believe exposure to natural light helps our bodies stick to their natural circadian rhythms, so that they know when to feel alert and energetic and when to feel sleepy.
5. … AND MAY HELP REDUCE SYMPTOMS OF DEPRESSION.
Natural light may even help reduce symptoms of depression. In one 2013 study, researchers found that, for people with both vitamin D deficiencies and depression, seven weeks of increased sunlight exposure (in the form of increased outdoor time), helped alleviate depressive symptoms. Another 2015 study corroborated these findings. Instead of spending more time outdoors, volunteers in the 2015 study participated in light therapy, a process that involves regular, prolonged exposure to lamps designed to mimic natural outdoor light. Researchers found that a combination of light therapy and anti-depressants was significantly more effective in treating depression than anti-depressants alone. Of course, light alone can’t cure depression—but researchers believe natural light may be a useful tool in alleviating its symptoms.
6. LIGHT CAN EVEN AFFECT YOUR APPETITE.
Studies have found that light affects how much we eat, how fast we eat, what kinds of food we’re in the mood for, and even our perception of flavor. In general, we eat slower and consume less food in restaurants with softer, dimmer lighting. However, we may also be more likely to order unhealthy food in darker restaurants. Researchers believe this is because softer lighting may make us less alert and more relaxed, which means we’re less likely to think through our food selections (and assess how caloric they are) but more likely to eat at a leisurely pace, instead of scarfing our food down.
But light doesn’t just affect what we eat—it can even have an impact on how things taste. One 2009 study, for instance, found that background lighting affected how much a group of volunteers liked a particular brand of wine, possibly because of the way different kinds of light affected the wine’s color.