The flurries only lasted for a few hours this week, but the message was clear: winter is upon us. And with it, for many of us, comes a kind of winter slump. I confess that while in general I’m an enthusiastic cheerleader for the joys of all four seasons, winter is the hardest season for me to find joy. I struggle with the weight of my coat around my shoulders and the wind whipping through the streets. But more than anything, I think my biggest struggle is with the lack of light.
I know I’m not alone here. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) afflicts roughly six percent of Americans, and another 14 percent of the population experiences milder symptoms known as winter blues. One reason why we all may feel a little more muted this time of year is the correlation between light and our serotonin levels, which peak at the end of summer. At the same time, I was struck to read that SAD is four times more common in women than in men, and that the seasonal changes in symptoms for women hold even after controlling for lifestyle factors. In other words, if you’re feeling bummed out right now, it’s not just because you aren’t exercising or getting out as much.
Whether mild or severe, one of the best treatments for winter blues is light therapy. I am a big fan of this non-invasive, non-pharmacological intervention, which has even been shown to be effective for non-seasonal depression as well. Light therapy lamps may not be pretty, but they do really help when used as indicated, consistently. Some studies show that up to eighty percent of sufferers experience relief from using a light therapy lamp. (If you’re thinking about light therapy, check with your health practitioner before starting to get the correct dose for you. This is especially important if you have bipolar disorder, as light therapy can have effects on this condition that you should discuss with your provider.)
If you want to know more about the health benefits of light and light therapy, see here.
But what if your cold-season mood is more winter blahs than blues: not a true depression, but a kind of low-level malaise that makes you wish you could just hit the fast-forward button to the longer days of late March? Or what if you have the kind of house or apartment that just doesn’t get as much natural daylight, leaving you feeling especially sun-starved in these gloomy months? What can you do to make your home a more vibrant place to be this winter?
It turns out, a lot! Just like you tune up your car and put on snow tires and take your sweaters out of mothballs, there are ways to winterize your decor for the colder season. Here are a few ways to lighten up your space for winter.
Wash your windows
Has it been awhile since you had your windows cleaned? Limited winter light gets filtered out even more by window grime. Even if they don’t look dirty, the film that builds up over time can significantly cut down on the light coming into your space.
I live in an apartment where the outsides of the windows can only be cleaned by professionals who repel dramatically down the side of our building with ropes and squeegees. Because of this, we don’t get to control when our windows are done, but every time it happens I feel like someone just cleaned sand out of my eyes!
Clutter can add a heavy feeling to your home, so taking time to declutter can increase the feeling of lightness in a space. This is particularly true if you have clutter accumulating on window sills, desks, or nightstands near windows. Anything that blocks the windows will reduce the amount of light entering your space.
Also take note of the color of your clutter. Having lots of dark or dull-colored clutter will absorb light and make a space feel darker. Stashing clutter away in light-colored storage bins will not only make the space feel cleaner, but also brighter.
Layer your light
We spend a lot of time focusing on natural light, but artificial light can be just as important. Do you have enough lighting in your space to make it feel bright and welcoming? Do you have dark, shadowy corners that could do with an extra lamp? In the summer, it’s easy to overlook a lack of lighting, but in winter, with the sun down as early as 4:30 in some places, the gaps in your lighting scheme become more apparent.
If your home feels too dark in the early mornings and evenings, or if you’re just not sure, try adding a couple more lamps and see how they affect the space. Even if you think you have enough illumination, layering your light sources (combining overhead with accent and point lighting) creates a more dynamic lightscape that makes your home feel more vibrant and alive.
This is one of the secrets of hygge-style home decor, the Danish philosophy of winter coziness. A big part of hygge is candlelight (seriously, Danes burn an average of 7.7 lbs of candles a year — so many that they’ve been warned about lung damage from the smoke!). But you don’t have to light candles — you can get a more fire-safe effect from adding string lights or other small points of light that add a twinkling glow to your space.
And while we’re on the subject of light, one very easy way to increase the light in your space is to change out opaque lampshades for translucent ones. (Think of the way a paper lantern lights up a room, compared with a brass-covered pendant.) When you have a light with a metal or dark-colored sheath, the light will be more focused. Choosing light-colored paper, fabric, or frosted glass shades will diffuse the light more broadly.
Add a dash of sparkle
Another way to make the most of the light in your space? Try adding reflective accents such as mirrors or metallics to reflect and scatter the light you have throughout a room. Think of the way that tinsel makes a Christmas tree seem to light up, or the way a sequined dress seems to sparkle as if it had its own light source. The same principle applies in the home: highly reflective materials bounce light around, making a space feel brighter.
Try light fixtures with mirrored or mercurized glass, faceted or cut glass lamps, or polished metal side tables and decorative objects. You could also try a little hanging sparkle, such as a brass mobile or even a disco ball, like in this whimsical interior by Alison Damonte!
Embrace lighter hues
Do you love dark, rich hues like burgundy, eggplant, charcoal grey, and forest green? If you tend to prefer these deeper colors, you might want to consider mixing in some lighter hues in the winter months. Light and color are two sides of the same coin, and while lighter colors reflect and amplify the available light, dark shades absorb and dampen it. This can also be true of midtones, especially desaturated colors like greys and taupes.
To solve this, try adding accents in a lighter palette. If you’ve ever noticed that Scandinavian interiors tend to use a lot of blond or bleached wood and lighter tones, then this advice will make sense. One of the biggest impacts can come from lightening horizontal surfaces. Because of the way light falls (generally in a downward direction from a source above), horizontal surfaces are naturally the lightest in a space. So by adding lightness here, you can maximize contrast and gain more brightening power. We did this in our house by painting the upstairs floors white, but a few easier (and more temporary) solutions include adding a light-colored area rug to your living room for winter, covering your table with a white runner or tablecloth, or adding a chunky throw in white or cream to your sofa or bed.
One of my favorite wintry accents is a white sheepskin, because it adds both brightness and softness. Throw one over a chair or layer on top of a rug for an instantly cozy boost.
Add a pop of color
Like light colors, bright, saturated hues reflect light, making a space feel more vibrant. You don’t need much. Even swapping in a couple of vibrant throw pillows or having a bright yellow vase for the dining table can perk up the space around it, making an expanse of greys feel lighter and more inviting.
I notice this a lot in my own house, where our colorful accents seem to have outsized impact in the winter.
Aim for airiness
We’ve talked about the way that dark colors can make a space feel heavy by dampening the light, but the same can be true of heavy materials. If you have heavy drapes, for example, you might consider swapping them out for lighter, lacier versions, which will not only transmit more light, but bring a snowflake-like lightness to your space. Adding cut flowers, especially light, airy blossoms, can also add this sense of lightness during a heavy time.
Appeal to the other senses
Winter is a time for nesting, a time when we’re often home more than usual. So in addition to maximizing light, it can be helpful to deepen the sensory experience of home by layering in a rich palette of sensations. Pay attention to textures, especially soft ones that soothe dry, irritated skin. (See my tip on sheepskins, above.) Invest in a sound system that lets you play more of the music you love at home. Explore adding a diffuser to scent your home in a way that feels good to you. (One recommended essential oil to try: Hinoki cypress, which has been shown in studies to help boost the activity of Natural Killer (NK) cells, one of our body’s natural virus-fighters.)
If you’re thinking about how to add more joy to your space, you might like to know that I’m launching a new course in early 2020 called Designing a Joyful Home. The waitlist for this course is officially open! Join now to be the first to get the info and an early bird discount the week it launches. Sign up here!December 14th, 2019