Leave The Lights Off

EFFECTIVENESS: 10/10      EFFORT: 02/10      ENJOYMENT: 09/10

This week's habit challenge was to refrain from turning on any lights in the apartment as it started to get dark outside. The idea was to leave the lights off and embrace the natural light and lack of light that humans have evolved to live by for hundreds of thousands of years. People used to get up when the sun rose and go to sleep when it set, but that has changed. Since the invention of artificial lighting in the 20th century it has become possible to comfortably stay awake into the morning hours and blinds and curtains have made it comfortable to sleep in on the weekends. I wanted to see what would happen if I went back to a more natural bedtime cycle. For a week I went to bed when it got dark and let the sun wake me up in the morning. I had no expectations going into this one.

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The first thing I was reminded of was how long it actually stays light outside. Here in Copenhagen the sun doesn't set until a bit past 9 and there are still traces of light across the sky at 10. The building across the street from our apartment has this amazing orange tiled roof that reflects a golden hue of light straight into our living room. The light is so bright that its kind of like watching a miniature sunset. Our apartment slowly starts to get dark as soon as the sun has set. The mostly clear skies have allowed for the moon to shine in through our living room window and bedroom window, meaning it never gets completely dark. Normally, after we've had dinner we'll turn on some of the lights in the living room and go watch the newest episode of something on Netflix. It was honestly really easy to just leave the light off and let it get dark naturally while doing what we would normally do.

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Melatonin is a hormone that is sometimes referred to as the "darkness hormone" because it gets released by the brain's pineal glands when it senses the absence of light measured by our eyes. The hormone sends signals to the body that it is time to rest, and strongly helps regulate the body's biological "sleep clock". Artificial light, including screens from computers and phones alters the release of melatonin and can have harmful effects on the onset of sleep. This is why we can get the feeling of being wired late at night because we have been staring at a bright screen in an artificially lit room. A few years ago when I was at University I frequently got into terrible sleep schedules of going to bed at ridiculous times like 4 in the morning and waking up past noon. During winter that meant only experiencing daylight for 2 or 3 hours. I can't help but think what kind of negative effect that had on my mental health. Considering that I had phases of struggling severely with nightmares and consistent periods of depression, it's revealing to look at some of the habits I had at the time.    

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Recently, after a long day I have found myself struggling to stay awake in the evening. In an out of control uncomfortable manner I would start to loose focus nearly fall asleep on the couch. This was different. As it started to get dark I could feel myself getting sleepy in an amazingly relaxing way. It wasn't out of control, but felt instead like a deep state of contentment. I was able to enjoy long conversations with my girlfriend, but never felt alert or overly excited. Calm and comfortable I immediately loved this habit challenge. The only light we had was the dimmed laptop placed a fair distance away on the coffee table as to not let it's light effect us too much. Ideally, we would have eliminated this too, but we aren't perfect and couldn't resist finding out what happened next on Orange Is the New Black. When I pulled out my phone my eyes painfully rejected the suddenly bright light as I struggled to turn the brightness level all the way down. Our eyes had adapted to the darkness quickly and before we knew it we were sitting in a completely dark room as if nothing was different. You can see a surprising amount with just a little moonlight.     

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I loved not constantly checking to see what time it was and trusting that my body knew when it was ready for sleep. I could sense what time it was based on the level of darkness. Thats melatonin strong at work my friends. At around 10:30 every evening we started to wind down for bed and by 11:00 after not needing to turn off the bedside lamp we fell asleep. Since my University years I have become a pretty good sleeper and don't usually struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep until the morning, but sleep this past week has been better than ever. We don't have curtains in our apartment and have always been woken up naturally by the rising sun. After rising at 5:30, at around 7:00 the sun is high enough in the sky to peak over the buildings across the street and shine straight into our bedroom. We sleep with the windows wide open so I get to wake up with actual sunlight on my face. In the same way that darkness influences the body's physiological preparations for sleep, light exposure stimulates a feeling of alertness and wakefulness. By being exposed to natural light early I feel completely rested and ready for the day when I wake up. I used to consider myself a committed despiser of the morning, but have in recent years found it to be my most productive, creative, and enjoyable time. This experiment certainly added to my fondness.        

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With the exception of using the wrong tooth brush once, not being able to tell when I had filled a glass of water until it overflowed onto my hand, and having to feel around for where I left my phone, leaving the lights off in the evening has only been a pleasant experience. Plus it feels kind of like camping! I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get back to basics and experiment with how getting on the same schedule as nature can have profound effects on our happiness and well-being. 

Happy Habit Building!