How this Affects You and Your Team and What to Do about It

For years I’ve bastardized that children’s rhyme to remember the days in the month:

“30 days hath September, April June and November. All the rest of 31—except January and February, which have 80.”

For we in northern climes, these are the days with the least amount of daylight. Our brains don’t like that.

Your Brain Connects Your Mood with Light

You may remember an old biology class where you learned that your optic nerves have photoreceptors called rods and cones. These allow you to see in the day and night. It turns out there’s a third kind of photoreceptor, called retinal ganglion cells (RGCs). These are filled with a light-sensitive substance called melanopsin.

At first, scientists thought the RCGs were linked to circadian rhythms, which help regulate our waking and sleeping states. It turns out they connect to part of our brain responsible for mood. And when the amount of light we see is shortened, we get depressed.

There have been studies of mice that have their RCGs removed. They don’t get the blues in diminished daylight. But let’s start with some less radical cures.

Remedy: Boost Everyone’s Serotonin

When you’re depressed, your brain produces lower levels of the neurotransmitter called serotonin. This is associated with a lot of conditions:

  • Getting a good night’s sleep
  • Regulating your appetite
  • Supporting learning and memory
  • Promoting positive feelings and making you feel more social

As you notice your own mindset—as well as your people’s—there are some non-medicinal things you can do to improve everyone’s mood.

Eat more tryptophan. While serotonin can’t be ingested, your body can turn tryptophan into serotonin. It’s hard to get tryptophan past our blood/brain barrier, so it needs something else to help carry it. Consider having snacks like these on hand:

  • Whole wheat bread with turkey or cheese
  • Plums or pineapple with crackers
  • Pretzel sticks with peanut butter and a glass of milk

Exercise. This releases more tryptophan into your bloodstream. It also reduces the levels of other amino acids in your blood, which makes tryptophan easier for your brain to absorb and turn into serotonin. That’s why walking, biking, swimming and other aerobic exercises can give you that post-workout high.

Think about “walking meetings” rather than sitting in a conference room. Get standup desks or walk around when you’re on the phone. Use the fitness equipment at your location and encourage others to so.

Run toward the light. Get outside at least 15 minutes a day: even in dreary weather this can help. Light therapy lamps can give people a boost, too.

Choose to lift your mood. Studies show just thinking about things that feel good increase our levels of serotonin. For example:

 Take Control of Your Environment and Everyone’s Mood

I once knew an organization that prohibited any kind of personal effects—photos, knickknacks, etc.—in anyone’s office or cubicle. This policy came from the chairman’s wife: who wanted everything to “look clean.” My sneaking suspicion is this is one of the reasons that company no longer exists.

Remember: moods are contagious. When you walk into a “blue Monday” feeling in your office, know you can improve this. And these positive changes can get you to—and last well past—the time when the sun reappears.