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The HappyLight: Can a Light Banish Winter Blues?

Can a desk lamp bring a little sunshine into a dreary office, making us happier and more productive? Greatist turns on the HappyLight to find out.
The HappyLight: Can a Light Banish Winter Blues?
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Days are shorter, sunlight is scarce (but hey, we’ve survived the apocalypse!). For a lot of us, it’s pretty chilly out and we’re less apt to venture into the Great Outdoors to eat lunch or go for a walking meeting. A lack of sunny rays may leave us tired and cranky, especially for those who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (a kind of depression that occurs during certain times of the year, usually winter).

Photo by Jordan Shakeshaft 

When sunshine is at a minimum and we’re feeling down and out, some forms of artificial light may help. Greatist put the Verilux HappyLight Liberty VT20 to the test to see if light therapy can really help improve mood and energy, restore focus and productivity, reduce cravings, and enhance exercise programs. 

What It Does

With its 10,000 LUX of full-spectrum light, the Verilux HappyLight Liberty VT20 comes with a lot of maybe too-good-to-be-true claims. How can a light curb carb cravings, get rid of grouchiness, and boost energy?

Posting up next to a light therapy box is thought to affect brain chemicals linked to mood, like the light-sensitive hormone melatonin. Light therapy can reduce levels of melatonin, which alters the body’s internal clock, as well as our mood, energy, and appetite [1] [2].

While my brief trial of the HappyLight may not be so telling, there’s science to back up its claims, and the claims of other light therapy systems. (There are many other options, so we can’t really make any generalizations based on the effectiveness of Verilux’s products.) In a small, controlled study of patients with SAD, bright light therapy had antidepressant effects beyond the placebo effect, but it took at least three weeks to see a significant difference [3]. Other studies found that light therapy improved mood and enhanced sleep efficiency, and can even stand up to antidepressants [4] [5].

But the main selling point of light therapy is that there are few side effects (mainly light sensitivity, sleep disturbance, and headaches). Used as a treatment for SAD since 1984, light therapy is an alternative to antidepressants or other treatments [6]. Light therapy advocates say it doesn’t take long to benefit — treatment sessions can be as short as 15 minutes. Another benefit comes from the HappyLight’s 36-watt natural spectrum bulb, which is said to help reduce eye strain (typical indoor lighting does not stimulate the eye’s rods and cones in the same fashion). 

How It Works

There aren’t a whole lot of bells and whistles to the light. The instructions are simple: Turn the light on, and carry on with your regularly scheduled programming — reading, writing, drawing, sewing, or using the computer.

Users position the HappyLight up so it’s as close as 6 inches away from the body, but within 2 feet of the face. Rather than looking directly into the lamp, its suggested placement is off to the side. There are two lenses (a comfort lens that’s a little easier on the eyes, and one for higher light output) as well as two brightness levels to the on-off switch.

There is a tilt function to adjust the light, or the option to hang it on the wall. Weighing in at only two pounds, the device is light and portable and harnesses 10,000 lux of light into a relatively small package (sunlight ranges from 32,000 to 100,000 lux).

Downside

This thing is bright! The comfort lens isn’t exactly comforting. But after just a few minutes of using the light, the brightness seemed less of an annoyance. It’s not unbearable by any means. 

While the light is marketed as having a discrete, compact design, it’s hardly unnoticeable. The unit itself is fairly small and doesn’t take up a lot of desk space, but there’s no concealing this puppy in an office setting. Don’t expect to hide it on your desk without suspicions of a UFO landing behind those cubicle walls.

Jokes aside, no one in our cubicle-less office admitted to being offended by the bright lights (unless they were lying!). In fact, when I switched the light off, a few coworkers said they preferred it on.  

Verdict

After intermittently using the HappyLight for a few weeks, can I confirm that it actually made me happier? Probably not (note: I have not been diagnosed with SAD). I mean, maybe I was a little less grouchy, but it’s hard to gauge without any quantifiable way to measure my happiness before and after use. Did it reduce my cravings for carbs? I don’t think so. I still went for peanut butter toast one morning, and had a hankering for grilled cheese when lunchtime rolled around. And as far as focus, productivity, and exercise enhancement go, I didn’t notice any spectacular change. Though my experience doesn't say a whole lot, being exposed to 10,000 lux for just 20 or 30 minutes daily effectively treats the primary symptoms of SAD. Mood, energy, frustration tolerance, and enjoyment of daily activities all normalize in patients with diagnosed SAD, says Greatist expert John Sharp.

I did notice one difference: My eyes. I tried the HappyLight when I was just getting over a head cold and my eyes felt especially tired. While I didn’t notice much of a mood change, I can say that my eyes felt less strained when working at the computer.

Added plusses: The HappyLight is generally smaller and less expensive than other popular at-home light therapy systems. The 13-inch-tall unit is smaller than the Nature Bright SunTouch Plus. And at $99.99, the HappyLight costs less than the Philips goLITE BLU. It’s also less embarrassing than wearing this light therapy visor.

So will I keep basking in the HappyLight’s glow? Eh, why not.

Have you tried the HappyLight or other light therapy systems? What did you think? Let us know in the comment section below, or tweet the author @nicmcdermott.

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Works Cited +

  1. Appetite regulation: the central role of melatonin in Danio rerio. Piccinetti, C.C., Migliarini, B., Olivotto, I. et al. Dipartimento di Scienze del Mare, Universita Politecnica delle Marche, Via Brecce Bianche, Ancona, Italy. Hormones and Behavior, 2010 Nov;58(5):780-5.
  2. Circadian rhythms, melatonin and depression. Quera Salva, M.A., Hartley, S., Barbot, F. et al. AP-HP Hopital Raymond Poincare, Physiology Department, Versailles-St Quentin en Yvellines University, France. Current Pharmaceutical Design, 2011;17(15):1459-70.
  3. Bright light treatment of winter depression: a placebo-controlled trial. Eastman, C.I., Young, M.A., Fogg, L.F., et al. Department of Psychology, Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center, Chicago, Ill. Archives of General Psychiatry, 1998 Oct;55(10):883-9.
  4. Bright light treatment in elderly patients with nonseasonal major depressive disorder: a randomized placebo-controlled trial. Lieverse, R., Van Someren, E.J., Nielen, M.M., et al. Department of Psychiatry, VU University Medical Center, Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Archives of General Psychiatry, 2011 Jan;68(1):61-70.
  5. The Can-SAD study: a randomized controlled trial of the effectiveness of light therapy and fluoxetine in patients with winter seasonal affective disorder. Lam, R.W., Levitt, A.J., Levitan, R.D. et al. Mood Disorders Centre, UBC Hospital, Vancouver, BC. American Journal of Psychiatry, 2006 May;163(5):8-5-12.
  6. Bright light therapy in the treatment of childhood and adolescence depression, antepartum depression, and eating disorders. Krysta, K., Krzystanek, M., Janas-Kozik, M., et al. Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy, Medical University of Silesia, Katowice, Poland. Journal of Neural Transmission, 2012 Oct;119(10):1167-72.

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