12 Tips on How to Increase Serotonin and Beat the Winter Blues

When I moved to Michigan’s wild Keweenaw Peninsula, I had one thing on my mind: embrace winter or die trying. As a southern California native, my instinctive response to cold and darkness is to slip on my Ugg boots, order a pumpkin spice latte, and run out the clock until spring. But in the Keweenaw, that would mean waiting at least six months. (More, if you count the time it takes for our annual snowfall to evaporate.)

man with beanie on in the cold
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Fortunately, I was surrounded by a community of people who are completely unfazed by winter. In fact, some of the area’s best outdoor activities happen in the harshest months of the year, including an international dog sled race, fierce tournaments in hockey, curling and broomball, and a traditional cultural festival that involves the weirdest obstacle course you’ll ever see in your life.

As I finally began to enjoy winter, I became in how other cultures celebrate the season, particularly in past centuries when they didn’t have the option of huddling around a space heater or flying off to a tropical beach. The more I learned, the more I realized that the key to beating the winter blues is all about appreciating this season for what it is.

It’s undeniable that winter brings a serious risk of the blues. Production of serotonin, the “happy hormone,” is triggered by factors like warmth, sunlight, socialization, and physical activity, all things that get a little harder to come by when snow starts to fall.

pug in blanket
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Whether you complain of feeling blah or claim seasonal affective disorder, most of the advice you’ll get involves combating serotonin depletion with dietary supplements and fancy gadgets. However, staying positive in winter doesn’t mean you need to live in a Snuggie while chugging fish oil and staring into a sun lamp. Instead, the key to increasing your serotonin in winter lies in leaning into the unique charms of winter. No matter how much you may hate the icy roads, gray skies, and even obligatory holiday tradition that come with winter, this season also offers an array of experiences that can’t be had at any other time of year.

If you confront the onset of winter with fear and loathing, like I used to do, keep reading for our top 12 tips on how to make the most of this chilling, thrilling time of year. From exercise and self-care to socialization and solitude, these tips will perk up your energy, elevate your mood, and possibly even make you fall in love with winter.

Take It Outside

The first rule of winter thriving is to get outside. In Scandinavia, it’s common practice for people to get outside every day, no matter what the weather looks like. (Hence the saying, “There is no bad weather — just bad clothing.”) If your exercise habit flatlines from November to April, set your bar low and simply resolve to take a 20-minute walk every day. Bring a camera or even your smartphone for capturing the beautiful, awe-inspiring, or sometimes comical scenes that you encounter. (If you’ve never seen a dog trying to make its way across an ice puddle, you’re in for a treat.) If you’re already a winter exercise warrior, take it to the next level with endurance running, ice climbing, or fat-tire biking. You can also experiment with a quirky new winter sport, like those listed above. Curling may look dumb when you watch it on TV, but you’ll be amazed at what it can do to your biceps and lats.

Make a Winter Bonfire

Can’t stomach the thought of venturing outdoors in the freezing cold? What if there were a roaring fire waiting for you? Whether by yourself, with a couple of friends, or at a party, a winter bonfire is a surefire (sorry) way to embrace the elements. Bring a sixer of your favorite stout, a wireless speaker, and a playlist of your favorite tunes, then crank up the volume and let it rip. If you get tired of the music, switch it up with a great fiction or documentary podcast; it’ll take you back to telling ghost stories around the fire at summer camp.

bonfire at night
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Party on the Solstice

According to researchers at Canada’s University of Toronto, we feel colder when we’re feeling socially isolated or our mood is low. So, if the low temperatures and extra-early sundown bums you out, turn it into an excuse to party. The longest night of the year provides a great opportunity to make merry with your friends ahead of the holidays (especially handy if you’ll be spending the holidays with difficult family). Stir up some mulled wine, put on some lively music, and work up a sweat dancing and carousing with your favorite people.

Enjoy Spontaneous Acts of Coffee

In Scandinavian countries, there’s a long-standing winter tradition of stopping by a friend’s place — unannounced — for coffee, cake and conversation. In Sweden they call it fika; in Iceland, it’s kaffi; and in Finland, it’s known as kakkukahvi. Since the surprise visit isn’t quite as welcome in American culture, we suggested banding together with a few other winter-resistant friends for a spontaneous hosting agreement: On these days, within these windows, anybody can stop by for a little afternoon pick-me-up. You’ll be surprised how looking forward to this simple pleasure dispels the winter blahs.

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Sweat Out the SAD

Counteracting seasonal affective disoerder or the winter blues with a prolonged sweat session? It’s a pretty genius idea, if you ask us. Not only is it an instant cure for ice block toes and that chill you can’t seem to get rid of, but it also speeds up circulation, which helps your body release the toxins that build up with decreased physical activity, not to mention triggering a rush of energy and endorphins that defeat the winter blues. If you can’t access a sauna or steam room at your local gym or day spa, no worries — a hot bath with healing salts will work just as well.

Embrace Your Spiritual Side

The slower pace of winter invariably invites contemplation. It’s a perfect time to balance out the busyness of your life with intentional solitude, stillness, and maybe even a little woo-woo. It can be as simple as a walk through the cathedral-like quietness of a winter nature trail—sometimes I like to take it a step deeper by practicing the Tibetan Buddhist custom of “sky-gazing.”

If a winter storm keeps you indoors, try a twilight meditation session instead. When you get home from work, hold off turning on the lights for 10 minutes, light a candle, and focus on your breath while you listen to the silence. If you’re a journaler, you could also use this time to read through past entries to gain wisdom and appreciate how much you’ve learned and grown over the year.

Finally, take one evening per week to disconnect from Netflix, texting or social media, and offer yourself some mind-body-spirit TLC. My favorite approach here comes courtesy of the Reiki-infused bath brew from New York’s Hellen. Each special bath formulation nourishes a specific part of the psyche and comes with a complementary semiprecious stone and a sound formulation. After a cold day of battling the elements, there’s nothing more relaxing than a dimly lit bathroom filled with steam, fragrant smells, and soothing sounds. (It’s also a great way to get over a cold.)

Slow-Cook the Winter Blues Away

Want to instantly transform your dark, dreary apartment into a warm cave of winter coziness? Break out the slow cooker. Along with providing a delicious treat to look forward to, the slow cooker’s heady aromas will wake up your senses and fill your home with positive vibes. You can invite friends over for the feast, but it’s perfectly all right to put on your house pants and stuff your face in solitude.

slow cooked stew
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Light Up Your Life

Compensate your body for the lack of sunlight by filling your space with warm, cozy light. This means foregoing the blue light of electronic devices for red, amber, or yellow light. These tones of light, which mimic sun or firelight, revive your eyes, nourish your pineal gland, and elevate a healthy, balanced ratio of hormones like serotonin and melatonin. You can get this light from burning candles or lighting a fire in the hearth, but it’s also just as effective when emitted from a pink salt lamp or exchanging your LED bulbs for incandescent ones. (They even make amber-tinted bulbs specifically for curing seasonal affective disorder.)

Bloom Where You’re Planted

Another page taken from the Scandinavian playbook is filling your home with living things. If you’re already up to your ears in houseplants, try something new by forcing a bulb, like a towering amaryllis or a bunch of brilliant hyacinths. If you’re cursed with a black thumb, it’s okay— just treat yourself to some fresh flowers once or twice a week.

hyacinths in a jar

Take a Candlelight Stroll

There’s something about candlelight that makes winter undeniably magical. No wonder so many cultures’ winter traditions include a slow candlelit parade. Try it for yourself. Stick a tea light in a mason jar or light up a handheld lantern and explore a local trail or green space when darkness falls.

Create a Ritual

Winter is easy to love during the holidays. But after the presents have been opened and the decorations have been cleaned up, that’s when the real blues begin. In Norway, their recipe for beating the post-holiday slump is known as Fredagskos, which literally means “cozy Friday” but generally refers to a mini-celebration for no reason at all, except to give you something to look forward to each week. Your ritual can be as simple as having friends or family over to watch a movie and eat snacks. In Norway, the millennials have turned Fredagskos into #fredagstaco, which translates as “Taco Friday.” However, it must be said that if other cultures are anything to go by, the weirder the ritual, the better. In the Czech Republic, they throw shoes at the house. In Romania, they dress up in bear costumes and dance around in the town square. In Fernie, British Columbia, they send a crash dummy careening down a ski jump. And of course, we can’t forget the Minneapolis guy who turned frozen pants into a venerable Midwestern tradition. Somebody get that guy a medal. He wins winter.

Hibernate

As much as your winter will benefit from outdoor and social activity, there can definitely be too much of a good thing. In the midst of your crazy winter shenanigans, take a cue from the animals and plants and use the meager light and slow pace of the season as a time to catch up on self-care. Work your way through a stack of books, spend quality time in your coziest loungewear, enjoy listening to a classic album all the way through, and — above all — treat yourself to a great night’s sleep as often as possible. Sweeten your sleep with a pillow customized for great support (we love the Coyuchi Serenity pillow) and a plant medicine concoction (like Luce Farms’ Full Spectrum Hemp Extract) that will calm your racing mind and foster a warm feeling of relaxation.

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