This Is the Best Way to Lift Your Mood—You Just Have to Get Up Early to Do It

Daybreak is a world we rarely glimpse, but is worth the effort. This writer put herself through "sunrise therapy" and is here to report on the benefits—all there for the taking. All you have to do is wake up in time.

How-Watching-the-Sunrise-Every-Morning-for-a-Week-Cured-My-Winter-Blues-Courtesy-Gina-RyderCourtesy Gina RyderThere are no guarantees that watching the sunrise will take away your seasonal sadness. The sun doesn’t have an ad budget or marketing campaign to make promises. However, sunlight is free and extremely reliable: Every day, it rises without fail, and its light brings a lot of impressive benefits. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that the morning sun worked wonders on my mood.

In the past, I rarely saw sunrise. Maybe on a random trip during an early hike, or at the beach when I needed a quiet moment in nature. These intermittent sunrise experiences awoke something dormant in me—a lightness, a hope, a reminder to breathe, all of which seemed to lead to a better day and a sounder night’s sleep. That jibes with what research has found: Researchers at Northwestern University have discovered that exposure to light helps reset our internal clock so that we sleep better—which also helps us maintain weight and even shed pounds. Other researchers have found that light therapy is an effective way to treat seasonal affective disorder. (With shorter days on the way, make sure you know the signs of SAD.)

Like a lot of people in the Northeast, I struggle with winter. So I decided to set up my own version of “sunrise therapy,” a self-created balm for relieving the blues. I’d get up each morning to greet the sun outdoors, in person. I would journal my experience, and hopefully the entries would reflect the healing of my winter blues. The additional time in my day would be given over to volunteering—and, oh yeah: I would also lose weight, fall in love, get a book deal, and start juicing again. OK, that’s a lot to ask of the sun—but I wanted to aim high.

02-How-Watching-the-Sunrise-Every-Morning-for-a-Week-Cured-My-Winter-Blues-Courtesy-Gina-RyderCourtesy Gina RyderThe first thing I realized was that the sun and I are not exactly compatible: It rises around the same time every day; my risings can be hours apart from one day to the next.

For my first day of sunrise therapy, I was successful. I headed to the reservoir in Central Park to find scores of New Yorkers running the 1.5-mile track around the water. In this sea of Fitbits and ambition, I felt both competitive and shameful, two feelings I didn’t sign up for when I enrolled myself in sunrise therapy. Why had I not been waking up earlier to work out? Morning workouts, science tell us, can make your whole day better. There were Upper West Side grandfathers in better shape than me! I let go of the regret and allowed motivation to take over: I’m surrounded by health-conscious go-getters—I can be one too. I’ll see you tomorrow, people.

The next day I overslept. Actually, “overslept” implies an accident, when I was quite purposeful: I heard my alarm and thought, “I don’t want to go. I don’t need the sunrise. This was the dumbest idea I’ve ever had.” This, despite knowing that waking up earlier has huge health benefits. That evening I did manage to take a short walk through Central Park to catch the sunset. Sunset therapy can also be a thing, right?

Content continues below ad

As the days ticked by and I began doing a better job of kicking myself out of bed, I realized the best way to make sunrise therapy work was to go to bed earlier. Once I adjusted to the early hour, I discovered that daybreak is like an alternative universe. Regular mornings are for showers, coffee, catching up on the news, dressing for the day. Daybreaks are for quiet, peace, and standing on rocks to take bad selfies with the sun. Morning is responsibility, daybreaks are freedom—a smooth, blank page upon which I can write whatever comes to mind. Daybreak takes a while to get to know, but it’s worth the investment.

01-How-Watching-the-Sunrise-Every-Morning-for-a-Week-Cured-My-Winter-Blues-Courtesy-Gina-RyderCourtesy Gina RyderOn my favorite day of sunrise therapy, I woke about 45 minutes before sunrise and walked up to Morningside Park. I stopped in a deli for a coffee, but the staff hadn’t made it yet. No one was out except a few stray neighbors walking their pets or an exerciser or two on their way to a morning workout. Under the glare of harsh streetlights, I made my way along Amsterdam Avenue to Morningside Drive where I found a spot on the cliff-like hillside of the park—named for its expansive sunrise views overlooking Harlem and Morningside Heights. The sun wasn’t up yet so I waited. A magenta, airbrushed line appeared and a flock of birds flew through it. As yellow and orange wavelengths of light came into existence, a lightness rose within me.

Behind me I noticed an elderly man standing with eyes closed, facing the sun with his arms outstretched. I looked around the park noticing the patch of light on the open field, seeing the bright reflection of the sun in a flower, and feeling the rays through the trees. Construction workers stood nearby and took photos. A couple carrying coffees lingered to watch. The elderly man’s eyes were still closed. I stood to get a better photo and realized that I was in a ray of light. Standing in a sunbeam feels as indulgent as a massage and or a leisurely bubble bath.

In the morning, even as the sun brightens, nothing is really clear. You don’t know how the day will go or what the future holds. Uncertainty can be scary, but during a sunrise that uncertainty is luminous. Watching the sunrise every day has helped me see light within myself—potential, possibility, peace, and the feeling that all will be well. We’ll see how many of my sun therapy goals I reach—but whether I get all or none, I know that my sun therapy already has me feeling more hopeful, centered, and eager to take on the day.

Ready to wake up with the sun? Here are the best places around the world to watch the sunset and sunrise, although someplace close to home would be the best bet. Watching the sunrise is a no-cost adventure that can be experienced almost anywhere. Every day, the sun will rise. All we have to do is rise with it.

Want to stay smart and healthy?

Get our weekly Health Reads newsletter

how we use your e-mail
We will use your email address to send you this newsletter. For more information please read our privacy policy.