Archive for Monday, January 18, 2010

Winter survival kit: Tips for making it through the gray days until spring

Stephen Ilardi, center, an associate professor at Kansas University, jogs with his daughter, Abby, 12, left, and wife, Maria. Ilardi has written a book, “The Depression Cure,” which recommends exercise as one component of the treatment.

Stephen Ilardi, center, an associate professor at Kansas University, jogs with his daughter, Abby, 12, left, and wife, Maria. Ilardi has written a book, “The Depression Cure,” which recommends exercise as one component of the treatment.

January 18, 2010


State of mind

A recent study by Andrew Oswald of the University of Warwick in England and Stephen Wu of Hamilton College in New York showed that Kansas is the 32nd happiest state in the United States.

The researchers took data of how happy people in various states reported feeling and coupled it with more objective measures that lead to happiness — such as the amount of public land, average temperature, air quality, commuting time and the cost of living.

Perhaps not surprisingly, warm states with lots of sunshine (Florida and Hawaii) topped the list. Connecticut and New York were at the bottom.

Wu notes that Kansas actually ranks 19th when it comes to subjective happiness. That means Kansans are actually happier than researchers think they might be on paper, based on the objective factors studied.

The top 10:

  1. Louisiana
  2. Hawaii
  3. Florida
  4. Tennessee
  5. Arizona
  6. Mississippi
  7. Montana
  8. South Carolina
  9. Alabama
  10. Maine

Nicole Van Velzen is determined to make 2010 her Year of Happiness.

The 30-year-old Lawrence resident generally considers herself a happy person. But she thinks she can do even more to put herself in a perpetually good mood.

“I think people have 100 percent control over their happiness,” she says. “Obviously life isn't always fair, but we all control how we react and internalize our feelings about both the bad and good things that happen to us all.”

She may need extra help today, which one British researcher has dubbed Blue Monday. Cliff Arnall believes there is a mathematical way to determine the most depressing day of the year. He used such factors as the amount of daylight, the time elapsed since Christmas, the fact that many New Year’s resolutions have already been dropped and the average debt following the holidays to figure that today is, in fact, as low as it gets.

But Van Velzen is taking matters into her own hands. She’s signed onto an online project called the Year of Happiness ( It’s the Web site for Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project.” Rubin, a Kansas City native, tried for a year to follow all the scientifically proven paths to happiness to improve her own life.

“My happiness project has convinced me that it’s possible to be happier by taking small, concrete steps in your daily life,” Rubin writes on her site.

For Van Velzen, who is executive and public affairs director for the Kansas Chamber of Commerce, that means being more “creative, active and thoughtful” in the upcoming year. It means spending more time with family, friends and her two dogs. And it means hitting the gym as often as possible.

Her strategies aren’t just picked randomly — they’re among the suggestions of Stephen Ilardi, a Kansas University professor of psychology and author of “The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs.”

Ilardi says there research shows people exhibit more signs of depression this time of the year. There are two basic root causes: lack of sunlight and lack of physical activity.

With that in mind, here are three simple strategies for combating Blue Monday:

1. Light up your life

Ilardi says the average room in a house is lit at 500 to 1,000 lux, the measurement of brightness. A bright sunny day, by contrast, can be anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 lux.

This is important because certain sight receptors only kick in at 1,500 lux or greater. And those receptors are tied directly to our body’s nerve center, regulating our body clock elevating levels of dopamine and serotonin — two brain chemicals associated with good mood.

The bottom line is this: There’s not enough light this time of the year to meet our body’s sunshine needs. And plus, when it is sunny out, it’s still cold, so we’re not likely to go outside.

So Ilardi suggests doing what you can to increase your sun exposure. Bundle up and take a walk. Open up the curtains and spend some time next to a window.

Another effective way to battle the dark doldrums is to buy a light box that emits around 10,000 lux. Spending about half an hour each morning with the light close to your face can have some powerful effects.

“Tested head to head against antidepressants, it’s every bit as effective as drugs, and without the side effects,” Ilardi says.

2. Take a supplement

Another downside to lack of sunlight is that our body doesn’t manufacture as much vitamin D as we need.

Vitamin D, which is produced in our skin when it is exposed to the sun, unlocks around 1,000 genes in our body.

“What that means is the brain ad the body don’t function as they’re supposed to when we don’t have enough vitamin D,” Ilardi says.

Because light boxes don’t help produce the vitamin, Ilardi suggests taking a vitamin D supplement. When looking for such a supplement, make sure it’s D3 and not D2. D3 is closer to what the body produces and is more effective in producing the desired effects.

The U.S. government’s suggested daily intake of vitamin D is 400 international units. But Ilardi says most research shows that level is not nearly enough. He says somewhere from 1,000 to 5,000 is more in line with producing mental benefits, but he also suggests people consult a physician before starting supplement levels much higher than 400 units.

3. Get off the couch

We all know the physical benefits to exercise. But there are equal mental benefits, Ilardi says.

“Exercise is an important and profound way of changing brain chemistry — even 30 minutes of brisk walking,” Ilardi says.

Exercise increases activity in the neural pathways, increases levels of dopamine and serotonin, and helps our brains form new connections that lead to greater memory recall.

And unlike medication, the effects of exercise on the brain are almost immediate.

Ilardi does realize that for people who are a little down this time of the year, it’s easier to hibernate than to start an exercise regimen. That’s why he also suggests hiring a personal trainer or having an exercise buddy, at least in the short term. It takes around three weeks to develop a true exercise habit, so getting over that hump is important.

Plus, there’s an added benefit if you’re choosing exercise over watching TV. Ilardi says TV-watching and other “auto-pilot” activities tend to leave our brain focusing on negative thoughts rather than positive ones.

All together, Ilardi says these suggestions might sound somewhat obvious — get outside, take your vitamins, get some exercise. But these aren’t just clichés. Tons of scientific research has proven these can help. And they’re all within your control.

“I think it’s easy to adopt a stoic attitude and say, ‘I’m living in Lawrence, not Hawaii. For two months out of the year, we have to grin and bear it,’” Ilardi says. “But a lot of these things are simple and in line with a lot of the things a grandmother could have told us.”


Liberty275 8 years, 4 months ago

It seems to me that if you are happy all the time, happiness has lost all it's meaning. Or maybe I'm just bipolar and like it.

Hopefully Nicole has fun with her experiment.

lounger 8 years, 4 months ago

Good article! Learning an Instrument helps too....

jjt 8 years, 4 months ago

I did an interview with Stephen Ilardi about his book last year. Those of us who suffer from depression and are "out" about it need all the help we can get when the "Black Dog" comes to call. Ilardi's book has lot's of good ideas that work, with out those damn drugs.

MyName 8 years, 4 months ago


I don't think they're talking about being stupidly ecstatic for no reason. They're talking about being depressed and unable to get out of it. If you're body isn't making enough natural endorphins then you eventually get unhappy to the point where you just want to die.

I think the point is that if you take some time and try and figure out why your body isn't working right then you can fight some of this without being doped up.

MyName 8 years, 4 months ago

Well I think the reasons you listed are why Americans are supposed to "pursue" happiness rather than having some kind of right to be happy.

Tragedy happens and it's how you deal with it that's important. If you'll think back to the 1930s, which was when we had difficulties that affected the entire country, their approach was similar to what Van Velzen is talking about, where you try to "keep smiling through" and do what you can to keep going.

I can't speak for Van Velzen, or anyone else in the article as I don't know them personally. However, I think the point she is trying to make is that it is possible to have some control over and aspect of your life that you normally feel helpless about can be an important catalyst for change. Sometimes people can (and do) make important positive changes in their lives, whether it's quitting smoking, losing weight, exercising more, or doing other things to make them feel better.

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