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Heading Off the Winter Blues

Winter blues? In August?!?

by Magic Penny

You may think that it’s early (or even absurd) to think about winter at the beginning of August. But if you’re someone who suffers from the blues during the winter (a.k.a., Seasonal Affective Disorder), this is exactly the right time to start preparing your defenses. Go NoCo includes doing small things daily that add up to raising your “emotional set point.” The set point refers to the level of happiness you feel on an average day, when nothing particularly good or bad is going on. Researchers in the field of positive psychology have demonstrated that much of our set point is under our control and can be raised. About half of your set point is genetic and therefore fixed, but as much as 40% is changeable. Although I find it confusing to put percentages on emotions, I find it heartening to know that it’s such a huge amount.

What’s more surprising is that they have found that circumstances account for just 10% of your baseline happiness level. “Circumstances” refers to your job, where you live and who with, your marital status, etc. Barring significant traumatic or disruptive events, your circumstances do not determine your outlook on life. What does this mean? Essentially, they’ve demonstrated that it’s possible to feel happier regardless of whether or not anything changes in your outside circumstances. Usually we think we’ll be happier “once I get that job” or “if only I found the right person” or something like that. But it turns out that major changes only give us a short-term bump in our happiness and pretty soon we settle back down to feeling how we always feel, even with that new job or new person or new whatever added to the mix.

This is exactly where NoCo comes in. Everything about the No Complaining Project focuses on altering and raising that 40% of your happiness set point that can be changed, the state that you settle back into once the newness is gone. I bring this up now, in August, because it takes time to raise your set point in any perceptible and lasting way. In my experience, it takes at least 3 months.

I say “my experience” because I used to struggle every winter. As the temperature dropped, so did my mood. I would isolate myself and get lost in TV and alcohol. I knew that seeing people would really help, but couldn’t motivate to call any of my friends. Even after I knew various exercises and techniques for improving my mood, they didn’t seem to do much once the mood set in. One thing that has made a big difference for me was doing the exercises in advance so I started off the winter with a higher set point. It gave me a jump on the blues, preventing them from taking as deep a hold. And I’m not the only one; I’ve seen this same result in others as well. It’s such a relief to get through the winter without a complete crash. I’d like the same for everyone.

So I encourage anyone who suffers from the winter blues to start paying attention to all the things that can contribute to your depression. This includes becoming more aware of your complaining habits and watching out for pessimism.

This is also the right time to start changing the habits that leave you feeling isolated. If you’re someone who watches TV at night to relax, switch to reading a book (it’s less passive than TV and engages more of your brain). Set up regular times with one other person doing an activity that gives you time to talk while you accomplish something, such as cooking, working out, playing a board game, going on photo walks, or even just doing laundry. During those times, encourage each other to talk about things that cause you to look forward into the future, that spark your curiosity, and that help you avoid complaining. If you have kids, spend time with them doing activities that they enjoy which don’t involve a screen (avoid the TV, computer, smartphones, etc.).

The important thing here is to set these activities up on a regular schedule. Having an expected activity helps combat the inertia that kicks in with the winter blues. And it takes time to build a new habit, so get started soon.

If you want to learn more, download this recording of our 8/14/2012 teleclass:
Complaining, Pessimism, and Depression

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