Kathleen M. Pike, PhD


We lit the first candle of Hanukkah yesterday. White match head pressed against the rough side of the box. Swift strike. Flame ignites. Gentle touch. Wick burns. Candle glows. The light is mesmerizing.

Hanukkah is in good company. Around this time of year, all over the world, people are also celebrating the holidays of Diwali, Christmas, and Kwanzaa where light plays a leading role. With ninety percent of the human population residing in the Northern Hemisphere, it does not seem a coincidence that these holidays occur against a backdrop of the darkest days of the year. These festivals of light remind us that in the darkest hours of our lives, light has the capacity to help us heal and grow and celebrate – scientifically and metaphorically. This Five on Friday is a spotlight on light and mental health:

1. Light improves mood. We’ve all had the experience. You pull open the curtains, or lift the window shade in the morning. Natural light pours in. Just a moment, all is right with the world. We have ample scientific studies to support our personal experiences of the positive effects that light has on our mental health. Light can decrease depressive symptoms and increase cognitive performance. This is true for all of us, and especially true for people who experience Seasonal Affective Disorder, a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons. It typically starts in the late fall or early winter and goes away during the spring and summer. It is more common as we move to northern latitudes where people have longer winter nights and less sunlight. We have good evidence that bright light treatment and dawn simulation are efficacious in treating Seasonal Affective Disorder, with effect sizes equivalent to those in most antidepressant pharmacotherapy trials.

2. Light at the End of the Tunnel. Here light symbolizes hope and the idea that darkness will yield to light. No matter how long the tunnel, light is ahead if we keep moving forward. In the light, we will find the relief, success, or help we seek. In an earlier Five on Friday, I wrote about the central role that hope plays in protecting and promoting mental health and wellbeing. Hope is comprised of three core components – goal, agency, and pathway. Being hopeful enables us to feel capable and motivated to develop and pursue pathways to desired goals. Hope is an essential component and catalyst in mental health treatment and recovery. The good news is that hope is a practice that can be cultivated and taught with curricula like Hopeful Minds.

3. See the Light. After prolonged groping in the dark, when we finally see the light, we understand or realize something heretofore hidden from us. Truths that we could not see despite their being with us all along, come into plain sight. In this way, light serves as the consummate metaphor for knowledge. It sits at the center of the word, enlightenment. We live in a dynamic moment in history when we are beginning to see the light about mental health. Although true since time immemorial, today’s global pandemic has made it such that we cannot help but see the inextricable links between our mental health and our overall health and wellbeing. Universally, knowledge is power. Seeing the light, armed with the knowledge, we have the opportunity and the power to make great strides advancing mental health today.

4. Out like a Light. When someone falls asleep or becomes unconscious very quickly, they are out like a light. As much as light protects and promotes our mental health, too much of a good thing can be a problem. Turning out the light and getting proper sleep is intimately linked to our mental health. Lack of sleep interferes with the consolidation of positive emotional experiences and is associated with increased risk for depression, emotional reactivity, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. Human-made light is a relatively recent phenomenon from an evolutionary perspective. Whether it is outdoor lighting, indoor illumination, or the blue screens of our televisions and computers, it is having a dramatic impact on our sleep patterns, which can significantly impact our mental health. Sort of like Goldilocks, when it comes to light, we need to find that place that is not too much, not too little, but just right.

5. Lighten Up! Sometimes the fastest route to brighter mental health is play and laughter. Play and laughter take us out of our heads and into our whole selves. Play promotes creativity, dissipates stress, enhances mood, and reduces anxiety. Laughter stimulates the pleasure center of the brain, helps us form social bonds, relieves pain, strengthens our immune system, improves positive emotions, and reduces stress. Humor can also reduce stigma and make mental health a less ‘taboo’ topic for many.

Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.” As we celebrate the holidays of this season, as we strive to understand mental illness and enhance mental health, let there be light!

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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