When middle-aged people (me included) talk about new ways to light up their life, it usually means fumbling for reading glasses or pumping up the font on our E-readers. But researchers are increasingly aware that light—both its source and the amount we get each day—isn't just essential to visibility. It's critical to basic health. Even more important, at least for people looking to make a life change, the right lighting turns out to be a secret weapon that can boost productivity, make us feel more competent and improve mood, motivation and creativity.
The first thing to know about light, says Jennifer Veitch, a principal research officer with the National Research Council Canada in Ottawa and expert in lighting, is that bright sunlight is essential, and most of us aren't getting nearly enough. "There's good evidence that when we spend 90 percent of our time indoors, we are not getting as much as we need," she tells Life Reimagined. (Conversely, we don't get enough healthy darkness at night.)
While much of the research on the benefits of light are still somewhat speculative, "we do know people need some amount of bright light each day." If you are lucky enough to work within five feet of a window and face outdoors, she says, you're likely getting all you need. But if you are more than 15 feet away, or don't face outdoors, it's smart to supplement. "We expect to know more specifics in the next five years, but for now the evidence leans toward these guidelines," she says. (Specifics are tricky, since the thickness of the glass, size of the window, and exterior views have an effect.) "And we do know that the bright light has to reach your eyes, so blinds interfere, and you have to look out the window."
Soaking up sun outdoors is even better, she says, since researchers have also documented that time spent in (or even near) any green space also reduces stress. "We know exercise is important, we know sunlight is important and we know green space is helpful, so walking outdoors in the morning is ideal. We've seen reductions in stress and in blood pressure."
Mornings matter most, she says, because adequate sleep seems to depend on our circadian cycles, requiring light in morning, as well as much less light before bed. "Bright light seems to coordinate those rhythms, Veitch says.
In fact, a new study from Northwestern Medicine found that people exposed to more natural light at the office slept longer (46 more minutes per night) and better than those without. They also reported being more physically active, and having a better quality of life.
Don't worry about lousy weather. "It doesn't have to be a full sun day to get these benefits," says Veitch. "Except for really heavily overcast skies, such as in the Northwest, even a cloudy day outside is sufficiently bright."
Here are some other ways you can use light to change your life for the better:
Add direct and indirect lighting. "In our lab, we've found that people tend to be in the most pleasant mood and most effective when they can use a mixture of light that shines right on the work surface, like a desk or table lamp, as well as some that is directed up, particularly if it brightens walls. That makes the area feel more spacious."
Watch out for glare. As we age, we become more vulnerable to scattered light. And since the ability to control lighting sources is also important to well-being, make sure you can control window glare with blinds or drapes.
Switch off your screens at least 90 minutes before bed. Healthy light is closely connected to healthy darkness, Veitch says, especially as it affects our body's inner clocks. Computers, tablets and cell phones are more problematic than TVs (which are typically farther away) and e-readers (where we can control brightness.)