Young man white adult male crosses his arms and shivers with his turtleneck sweater isolated on white background.

Liam – January 28, 2019

As I write this, Chicago is staring down the barrel of what may be one of the coldest days in the city on record. New snow continues to cover the perfectly shoveled steps, walkway and sidewalk of our building. I do the shoveling, and I take pride in my work, so it’s hard not to curse the thick flurries spoiling my artistry. Last night I slept with heavy sweatpants tucked into thick socks and a long thermal shirt underneath a hooded sweatshirt. My wife Kim and I have taken to wrapping ourselves in our own blankets underneath our shared down comforter and heavy quilt. Sleeping like this, I feel more like a hairy caterpillar in a shoddy cocoon than human.

This is winter in Chicago. It’s depressing.

When it gets this bad, I wonder how my Fafa Izzy, a founder of The Danish Home, handled the dark chill and bitter ice blanket that envelopes Chicago each winter. She didn’t have central heat like Kim and I do, and I doubt she had these thick socks that add at least half a size to one’s feet. Without today’s modern winter technology and accoutrements, I suppose she had to rely on bundling up in what had to be terribly uncomfortable layers. And I wonder if the winters dragged her down like they do me.

An old sepia photos features men and women in the snow against a snowy mountain range.

In olden times, people had neither central heat nor light therapy to help them combat cold, gray winters.

I don’t have the market cornered on winter blues. The short days, the frigid temps that keep us from enjoying what little sunshine there might be, are a steamship’s anchor chain around an estimated 20 percent of Americans’ chests. This winter, however, I’m fighting back. I’m embracing my Danish DNA, channeling my unstoppable great-great grandmother’s tenacity, and realizing that maybe I’ve been letting the winters drag me down.

Winters in Denmark and Chicago aren’t all that different. February is the coldest month, with the average temperature hovering at freezing (0° C/32° F). Daylight is a rare spectacle. Ironically,
the—um—light at the end of the wintry tunnel does increase in February. On average, Denmark gets a boost to eight daylight hours, compared to Chicago’s ten. But that doesn’t mean any of us will actually see the sunshine. Winter clouds block the brightness and cause temps to dip and winds to rise. Chilling facts, aren’t they?

But there are plenty of ways to get past the bummer of single-digit daylight hours and sub-freezing temperatures. We know one way is to literally submerge yourself in the cold. Another Danish tradition being embraced by the Pinterest crowd here in the States is hygge. Snuggling up with your sweetheart, sipping mulled wine and completing puzzles is all well and nice until you get cabin fever. And that’s why I’ve fully embraced light therapy.

Put simply, we need light. A major factor causing the winter blues is that the shorter days throw off our circadian rhythms. Light therapy helps put our brains back on schedule, which boosts our mood. Light therapy is maybe the easiest kind of therapy one can engage in, because all you have to do is sit near a light therapy box. The box emits light that mimics sunshine, but it’s not hot and it’s not dangerous. But it does work. At least it works for me. I’m sitting in front of my light box right now and I feel great—even though I’m bundled up next to a space heater.

A smiling woman sits at her computer with a light therapy bulb next to her.

Light therapy helps ease Seasonal Affective Disorder and regulates circadian rhythms.

How much light and how long you should sit with the light box differs from person to person. You can talk to your doctor about it, or you can just dive in and give it a go. The best part is, light boxes are affordable.

But adding light to my day is only part of the equation. For me, it’s the first step toward having an active, productive day. It juices me up with the wide-awake brain and body energy I need to complete the puzzle with Kim or shovel the walkway or go to work and not sulk through every meeting. Activity is key to beating the winter blues; we just have to get up and get going.

The Danish Home of Chicago does a great job of giving residents plenty to do, even during these days of gray and dangerous chills. In the morning, there are stretching or exercise classes. Later on, there are shopping trips and organized games of chance and strategy, like rummy and marbles.

Maybe Fafa Izzy would laugh at me for sitting next to a light box. I admit, it does sound a little weird, but it is based in science and it’s making my life better. And I believe that’s what would matter most to Fafa Izzy. It’s why she helped establish The Danish Home in the first place. Just imagine if a light box could improve your rummy game.