Defeating SAD With Dr. Norman Rosenthal, M.D.

11 Jan , 2024 podcasts

Defeating SAD With Dr. Norman Rosenthal, M.D.

Defeating SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder): A Guide to Health and Happiness Through All Seasons


Similar to the changing seasons, human emotions can also have their seasons. There are highs during certain periods and lows during others. However, this ebb and flow can become problematic, especially when it leads to what is now recognized as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This episode’s guest is a foremost authority on the subject and he is here to help you defeat it so you can thrive in all seasons. Katherine Twells is with Dr. Norman Rosenthal, who is currently the Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and is listed as one of the Best Doctors in America. Dr. Rosenthal provides us with deep insights into this disorder, tapping into its history, our connection with nature, and how it differs from the winter blues. In his book, Defeating SADhe gives a guide to overcoming the miseries millions of people experience with the changing seasons. Find out what these measures are. Tune in and learn the keys to defeat this disorder and live a much better life.

Listen to the podcast here


Defeating SAD With Dr. Norman Rosenthal, M.D.

Thriving In All Seasons

I am speaking with world-renowned psychiatrist and best-selling author, Dr. Norman Rosenthal. Dr. Rosenthal is known for his innovative research and inspirational writings. I can tell you that in reading his books, you get a sense of his fascinating journey and the type of incredible individual he is. He is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine. He’s also listed as one of the best doctors in America.

He’s also a motivational speaker and professional coach. He works with people from all walks of life, including CEOs, top athletes, and performing artists. He was born and raised in South Africa and then he immigrated to the US to do a psychiatric residency at Columbia in New York before going to the National Institute of Health where he began his research career. His first major research contribution was to describe and name Seasonal Affective Disorder, otherwise known as SAD and to develop light therapy as a treatment for this novel condition. We’re going to talk a lot about that as his latest book dives deep into how to defeat this disorder and live a much better life.

Norman is a highly cited researcher. He’s written over 300 articles and authored or co-authored eight different books including Winter Blues, the New York Times bestseller Transcendence, and the LA Times bestseller The Gift of Adversity. He and his work have been featured on Good Morning America, the Today Show, NPR, and other national media.

You can tell he has lived an amazing life and continues to serve on so many levels. He has the ability to stay curious, asking new questions that lead to revelation. He’s been committed to the service of others for decades. You’ll read in our conversation the wisdom that is the result of a life exploring the human experience. Please enjoy the conversation with the amazing Dr. Norman Rosenthal.

Norman, it is such a great pleasure to spend this time with you and I wanted to say thank you so much for being on the show.

It’s a pleasure to be here.

What I always do is I will have given you very amazing and impressive bio so that the audience will know a little bit about your formal bio, the books you’ve written, and some of the things that you’ve done. However, there’s always way more to a human story than that. Our stories could be told for hours on end. If you could summarize a little bit for our audience about your origin story, who are you? How did you get to be where you are now? We’ll go deeper as we have our conversation.

I grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa. I spent the first 24 years of my life there going through all the steps of school, high school, medical school, and the South African Army, which was compulsory. I was living in their strange and narrow world, but also very colorful and full of light with mild changes of seasons. My dad was a lawyer and a very funny guy. I learned from him how to tell jokes and enjoy jokes. Also, laugh at things because life can be very funny sometimes and sometimes not so much.

My mom was a very smart lady. She ran a speech therapy department. I grew up with a tremendous respect for women and their intelligence that I have maintained over the years. I loved thinking about the mind. It always fascinated me. I had a lot of very colorful characters around me in my laboratory, people who were very interesting, like an uncle who lost his memory and then got it back again and a cousin who was a compulsive gambler. Also, a relative who was a compulsive tall tale teller, to put it politely.

I would always think, “Why is somebody so sure that this horse is going to win the race?” Anything could happen that derail the horse. Why does he make up such amazing lies when they’re so transparent? It was a colorful community and environment and a little boy fascinated by how the human mind works. That was what I was fed on and that’s what I grew up on.

I love the way you set this up because I tend to believe that we’re shaped by our environment for very special reasons. We’re on a journey in our life that is maybe not preordained, but there is some purpose to it all, and here you were so fascinated by the mind and surrounded by all these people that you could observe, “Why is one person this way? Why is someone else in my circle that way?” I think that’s so fascinating and probably fueled your curiosity even deeper.

It is true. Even now, I work with people. When I came to the National Institute of Mental Health, the NIMH here in Bethesda, Maryland, I was very eager to understand the workings of the mind. I was searching around for a research project that would yield fruit and that would be revelatory. I was working with rats. I was working with little platelets, the small cells in the blood to see, “Is that where the secrets lay?”

I realized, “I can become a psychiatrist to work with rats.” I don’t like platelets. I chose people instead and I’ve never regretted it because my medium is people. I love people. They fascinate me. I love my work still after all this time. It never gets old. It never gets boring. They say every snowflake is unique, but what about every person? Every person has his or her own way of thinking, history, background, and shaping influences. I love to try to help put my skills to work to help them sort out whatever it is that’s bothering them.

I share in your fascination. Working in the Compassion Lab with the company is a completely different domain. It’s the business world, but it is the exploration of the human experience and how we learn perspectives and practices. The umbrella of compassion is to fundamentally seek to hold a space of understanding for self and others to create more connection and unity.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD)

As we go on this journey together, it’s a constant fascination with how we process the world and why one person sees it one way and another person sees it another way. It’s amazing. What I’d love to do, if you’re okay with this, is I want to dig a little bit into your latest book. You’ve written so many exquisite books on transcendental meditation. I enjoyed Super Mind on how we move our mind into another state.

Also, the gift of how poetry can serve as a way to broaden our minds to comfort our souls. I thought that was a beautiful book that you’ve written. We’re going to talk a little bit about The Gift of Adversity and how that shapes us, but I want to begin the conversation with your latest book, which is Defeating SAD. One of the things that you are somewhat famous for is creating that word to describe the condition of Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Defeating SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder): A Guide to Health and Happiness Through All Seasons

Defeating SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder): A Guide to Health and Happiness Through All Seasons

I live in Southern California. We are blessed with a lot of light most of the year, but I remember when I lived in Chicago. I moved to Chicago from Southern California years ago and I moved in October. The sun didn’t come out for a month. I remember thinking, “What have I done?” It had an effect on my mood. We’re going to dig into more about what this is and the texture of it. Can you ground us with what SAD is and how does it affect people?

One way of thinking about it is that we all evolve with the seasons just as animals do. We all know about hibernating bears or animals that change their coat color, grow antlers, or do fascinating things across the seasons. However, until probably the 1970s, we had no idea that humans could be seasonal as well. Through work that we started at the NIMH and other people had heralded, it became clear that humans can be very seasonal as well. Sometimes that’s just fun, being giddy and happy in the long summer days or enjoying the autumn, but sometimes it can be a problem.

That’s what seasonal affective disorder is. People who have a problem with one season or another. Most commonly, it has been the winter. The autumn begins, the days get shorter progressively, and then stay short and dark through January, February, and even March. There’s a long chunk of time there when there’s not all that much light around. That was never fully understood to be the cause of people with winter difficulties, but that’s what became apparent when we started talking and researching seasonal affective disorder.

Some people, when the days get short and dark, have difficulty enjoying themselves, getting out of bed in the morning, restraining themselves at the dinner table, eating too many sweets and starches, and gaining weight. They are becoming less capable at their work and less engaged in their relationship. When you add all these things together to get the syndrome that we came to call Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD, you can get a pretty miserable person. It can be a man or woman but more commonly women. They’re 3 to 1 women to men with SAD. That is seasonal affective disorder and that has been a major focus of my research for the last decades. That’s what I’ve condensed into this book here.

Norman, why do you think it’s 3 to 1 women? Do you have a hypothesis on why that is?

Yes. If you think of what the function was of people responding in certain ways to the seasons, what you’re dealing with is needing to conserve energy in the winter. When you think of women in prehistoric times when they were evolving all those years, they were pregnant a lot of the time because a lot of the pregnancies didn’t go to term or didn’t yield children. People were pregnant much more of the time prehistorically than they are now or even 100 years ago.

You see people who were pregnant ten times or whatever. If you think about it, in the winter, if you’re nursing a baby or carrying a baby inside, you’re going to want to conserve your energy because there’s not a lot of food outside. It’s cold outside so you lose a lot of energy when you go outdoors. It evolved in such a way that the females were the ones that benefited most, or at least the species benefited the most when the females were protected against the loss of energy that came with a winter. The whole biology became shaped around their need to conserve. It was more so for the women than for the men because the men had to be out hunting, gathering, doing active stuff, and protecting the tribe. It was not as adaptive for them to be in a state of withdrawal or low energy.

If you think about where we are now but our past and our evolution, so much drives things in us now that perhaps we’re not even fully conscious of like this example that you’re sharing. It’s funny how you mentioned the connection between humans and seasons because, so often, we want to say that we’re apart from nature, but we aren’t. We are like nature. I often feel like if you want to seek truth and wisdom, look at the way nature operates and sync up more with that. There are cycles. There are seasons. There’s death and rebirth. There’s a constant evolution. There’s such a wisdom and understanding that we are a part of that.

I haven’t had a dog as an adult until lately. Somehow understanding a little bit about how a dog’s mind works and the behavior that is almost human in a lot of ways, I’ve realized that we are a part of the fabric of nature. We’re not separate from it. We’re not somehow a unique entity. I’ve gained tremendous respect for that knowledge just by looking at my dog. It’s in line with what I was saying about the evolution of SAD.

We really are a part of the fabric of nature. We're not separate from it. We're not somehow a unique entity. Click To Tweet

Winter Blues Versus SAD

Animals are amazing teachers. You’re listening to this conversation and perhaps you’re thinking, “I feel a bit out of sorts during the winter.” How would you create a distinction between maybe the winter blues or being just in a funk and sad?

It’s an important one. Let’s say you woke up one day with a cold or you woke up one day with pneumonia. In the one case, you might get into work. You might go about your stuff because it wouldn’t be that bad. You might take over-the-counter medicines. You might self-care, but on the other day, you’ll probably call your doctor to get some more radical intervention. You can compare that to winter blues and seasonal affective disorder.

In that, if you’re just down in the dumps and not functioning at your best, there may be some things you might go online and you might check some stuff over there. You might get light therapy. You might exercise more. You might walk outside in the sunlight if you could or go on a sunny vacation, but that might do the job. If you’re sad, you might have to drill down and understand a little more about all the things that you can do. That’s what I wanted to collate. All the different things you can do that can make the winter better for you, whether you’ve got a milder case of the winter blues or even a severe case, there’s so much you can do to help yourself.

Causal Factors Of SAD

I want to talk about what you can do. Also, you mention in the book like a three-legged stool of causal factors of what create this condition. Can you share those three dynamics and what drives SAD to come into your life?

You start off with your biology, which may be your gender as we’ve discussed or maybe the family history which may be genetically transmitted. You’ve got the biology. You’ve got a lack of light plus stress. That is the three-legged stool. If any of those is knocked off, your life can get tumbling over. The lack of light can come about if you live in the far North or in a very cloudy area. If you live in a basement apartment or if you have some eye problem, that doesn’t let the lights come through. The stress can come in every form imaginable, but when you’ve got them together, it’s the unholy trio. That’s when you’re most likely to get the problem.

It makes a lot of sense. I’m sure this is true for many and we’ll talk about the fact that it’s not just winter. It happens in other seasons, but I think about the days when the sun is shining. I take my dog outside for a walk and the sun hits my face for the first time. I just close my eyes and feel that warmth. Your body’s releasing endorphins at that moment. You’re getting a dose that feels good when that happens.

It definitely is responding chemically. One set of chemical responses comes in through the eye and the other comes in through the skin. They are both involved. In our work with SAD, we focused on eye-related changes. The light is visible light. It’s not UV light or ultraviolet. It’s exposed to the eyes and the eyes are exposed to the light. That’s where the data lies for treating SAD, but in parallel because a lot of times, nature works with redundancy when it comes to important functions.

In parallel, people who line out in the sun are often getting a high, and that high comes through the skin. It comes from actual endorphins. They’ve done some interesting studies. For example, they’ve blocked opiates, and people who are depending upon others to keep their mood up can go into a withdrawal because their opiates are being blocked that were being generated by the sunning and the tanning.

Here’s a question for you, Norman. This came up a lot in the last couple of years with COVID on the importance of vitamin D and that so many people are vitamin D deficient. When the sunlight hits your skin, it creates vitamin D. Some of the conversations I’ve been in are about how you balance sunscreen, sun protection, and the whole skin cancer dynamic with allowing the sun to create vitamin D in your skin. Do you have some thoughts on that? Sometimes, we use so much sunblock that we are blocking the creation of vitamin D. Please correct me if that’s not right because I’m not an expert on that.

One thing that’s good is that vitamin D can easily be replaced with a supplement. That gets you off the hook with regard to vitamin D. The other thing that I think we’re all learning is not just that the sunshine can cause skin cancer and so on and so forth, but that the sun with its ultraviolet light actually damages the skin. Quite aside from the harmful effects of UV light on the skin, which includes certain kinds of skin cancers, a lot of us are becoming more aware of the way in which ultraviolet light can age the skin. All of us wishing to be youthful forever are slathering the sunscreen on in the hope of eternal youth and beauty.

Treating And Managing SAD

It doesn’t always work because the sunscreen doesn’t stop the other things that start to happen over time, but it’s all good. That’s a whole other show where we talk about embracing the beauty and wisdom of our aging process and not fighting against it. Moving back into SAD, you feel like this is affecting the quality of your life, your ability to function, show up, and enjoy things. What do you do about it? How do you treat it?

That is such a good news story with regard to SAD. There are so many things you can do. I’ll list them and then we can delve into any that is of particular interest. Increase the light, get outside and exercise, reduce stress, engage in some kind of cognitive behavior, and self-care. We can talk about that. Negative ions, which I know will be quite alien to a lot of people here. Also, good sleep and eating. Carefully planned vacations and stress reduction. All of those things can be incredibly potent in and of themselves. When you combine them together, you can have an amazing impact on SAD. That’s, in general, terms what you do.

I’m sure there are a couple of people out there who might be saying, “Norman, it’s easier said than done to reduce stress.” We’re having this interview right in the middle of December. We’re right in the middle of the holiday season. I don’t know about you, but I have one too many pieces of chocolate truffles and peppermint barks sitting down. I’m probably eating more sugar than I should.

We all want the holidays to be a hallmark card of snowy windows and pass the turkey around the table, but we know that in truth, it can be a really stressful time for people. I want to dig into light therapy in a minute. Stress, sleep, exercise, and many of the things you’re talking about are wonderful prescriptions all year round to stay grounded and to be able to meet what life gives you in a much more fortified way. How would you guide people on how to manage that in a time of year that can be hard for people?

I could answer the question in so many ways, but what I’d like to say a big thing is to know thyself. There is an old precept of, “To thine own self be true.” When I grew up, in retrospect, I was an absolute sugar addict. I remember the box of Ginger Snaps in South Africa, and I remember going right through and realizing that I couldn’t stop and I didn’t want to stop. It was feeling physically nauseated that stopped me. That continued into my adult life. I remember the frozen yogurts because, at that time, we heard that if there was not much fat, it didn’t matter if it was sugary.

It was the sugar industry that was in charge of the communications at that time. I remember going after dinner and starting with the frozen yogurts and saying I’ll have a spoon. That was baloney. You can’t have a spoon and then I would see the cardboard underneath. I would realize surrender. This is a done deal and I would then take all the yogurt from the side, in the cracks and the crevices. I understood that with every addiction, there is no such thing as moderation.

For many years now, I have had no pure sugar in anything. You might think, “What a mammoth difficult thing,” but when I heard you talking about the chocolate bark, I could not have chocolate bark around and say, “I’m just going to have a piece or two.” For me, there is no such thing. It’s like an alcoholic with a drink. The interesting thing is that I am not alone. There are so many people because it tastes so good.

Endorphins are being secreted and I made the decision that it was easier to have a life without pure sugar. I can have complex carbs. That’s fine. I can manage that because I can govern it to some extent, but I can’t do it with pure sugar. That’s in the book, for example. Cut that out. Make life easy for yourself. Interestingly enough, giving yourself light in winter will reduce your sugar cravings. We have data to that effect.

Giving yourself light in winter will reduce your sugar cravings. Click To Tweet

We have to stop talking about the sugar because it’s going to make me want to go get something, but it’s true. I’m either on sugar or off. There isn’t a middle. I’m either not eating it or, if I am, forget about it. I exercise more to try to offset some of that. I always talk to my sons. Everything is our choices that we’re making all the time. We are human and sometimes we get to give ourselves a break.

The Power Of Light

We’re not going to be the perfect specimen of making the best choice every moment, but they all add up in what we do. If we’re doing the best we can to understand what gives us balance and what nurtures our positive health, then we move over to the light therapy and the power of the light, how does that work if the sun is not there? I think there are light boxes and different things you can do. What can people do to affect their light intake?

Firstly, yes, lights are important. What I’ve done personally is I’ll come in the morning and I’ll sit in front of my light like at this time of the year. I’ll either look at the news headlines or I’ll play games. If I’m playing games, I say, “I can play games because I’m getting light therapy.” That’s my little break there. Also, the news is so hard and sad these days that it’s hard to delve too much into it. You can get it at your desk. You get it at the breakfast table. I have it in the bedroom. I have light boxes all over. It adds up but probably less than a trip to Miami for a week. You can have both if you’re lucky.

I would encourage people to get away. When you come back, you can get back to the lights again. Going outside, you’d be surprised how much light comes off a cloudy sky. It’s because lots of times, the cloudy sky is not dark black. It’s silvery in a lot of cases and a lot of lights coming off it. If you’re going, especially walking up and down hills, you get that aerobic effect plus the light. That’s definitely something I would add. There are wake-up lights in the morning also known as dawn simulators. They can bring the light on in the bedroom very early. There are a lot of things to do and a lot of ways to get extra light. Bringing it into your life is a key way of treating SAD.

Defeating SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder): A Guide to Health and Happiness Through All Seasons

Defeating SAD: There are a lot of things to do and a lot of ways to get extra light. Bringing light into your life is a key way of treating SAD.


You mentioned the cloudy sky, and I’m always so amazed when you take off at an airplane on a cloudy day with heavy cloud cover. You just pop right through the clouds and there’s all that beautiful sun right above them. You can know when you’re walking, it might not be that direct, but all of that light is right behind the clouds filtering through more than you think. That’s why even with sunscreen and things, it’s like, “Don’t think that because it’s cloudy, there’s not that UV rays coming through.”

That’s true. Also, to be able to do all those things to move your body, that’s going to change your mood. On the light boxes, you have a ton of detail in your book on the different kinds. Do you have to do your research? If you go on Amazon and say, “Lightbox,” how important is it that you get the right kind, or do they all work in decent ways?

It is important. I’ll give you an example. You’re going to go on and you’re going to see cute vertical slits. It’s got great decorations around it. It fits exactly on your desk and it will be a real asset to have in your room and you’ll use it as your lightbox. However, it may not give enough light because even if it gives the designated 10,000 lux, which is the standard offering, that’s if you put your nose 6 inches away from it right in the middle of the box, which nobody does because you move your head around.

A bigger one that doesn’t look as good might be much better for you or one might come from above your computer and might be a perfect fit. Also, if you want one to use when you’re on your life cycle treadmill, you may want one on a stand to get it close enough to the head. There are a lot of little itty-bitty logistical things that I’ve tried to take into account. If you’re traveling, you may need ones that are rather small like tablet size. You may need to take a couple so that you get it in stereo. It is looking into it with the help. I’ve tried to outline my experience and looking into it can get you the best results.

How long during the day? Is there a certain period of time? Do you need to do it several times a day or, certainly, if it’s over your computer while you’re working and you’re getting that ongoing, is there a certain prescription for how to use it?

The morning is the most potent for most people. The duration is negotiable. Oftentimes, people start with 20 to 30 minutes, but sometimes people just push the light away and let it just be ambient light to make the room brighter. It has to be customized to an individual’s needs. Too much is not great. It can get you revved up. It can give you headaches or eye strain. Try not to stare at the lights for extended periods because that can be harmful. Certainly, if there’s any problem that you have with your retina or the actual functioning of your eyes, then you want to get it checked out by a doctor before you go ahead and start the light therapy.

As in all things, there’s a balance to doing this. I almost feel like there’s this entire light strategy because going back to how we are a part of nature and we have rhythms and cycles, they talk about the circadian rhythm and sleep. We’ve done some work with energy management where we know the ideal focus time for a human to be working is 90-minute pulses and then you take a break. The more we understand that we, like the ocean waves, all inhale and exhale the body, we have all these ways we need to manage ourselves.

However, now we’ve got blue light blockers for computers. You can be up at night on your computer getting all of that light from your computer and it’s affecting your sleep. Beyond just SAD, I feel like there’s this understanding of how to sync your body in with its most natural rhythm and to manage your light intake both too little and too much to optimize that.

You’re right on point here. Back in the 1970s, people thought that light in humans did nothing other than enable us to see, and then the recognition came. My colleague is the one who spearheaded that, showing that the hormone melatonin could be suppressed by light. Also, came Seasonal Affective Disorder and the antidepressant effects of light.

It became clear that all the light studies that had been done in animals were applicable to humans, but you just had to raise the intensity. Now, it was shown that lights could change your rhythms, keep you up at night, wake you up in the morning, and do an amazing array of things. That is now given wisdom in terms of light. Like any active principle, you can use too much. It can keep you up at night if you use it too much too late. You want to wind down at the end of the day. These are some of the issues.

I think your next book, Norman, is The Power of Light. It’s like light management and all of it.

It’s an idea. That’s for sure.

Negative And Positive Ions

Also, the beauty of it and how much to take in. There are two more things I want to dig into on defeating SAD and then I want to pan out a little bit into some of your other work. There’s no way I would want to end this show without tapping into some of the other wisdom that you have to share here. There are two pieces and one of them is you mentioned the negative ions. I was so fascinated by that. Would you take a moment to explain how negative and positive ions have an effect on us?

This is a work by Dr. Michael Turman up at Columbia. There are charged particles in the air. They carry little electrical charges. You wouldn’t know it. When you’re close to water that is being perturbed like in a waterfall or pounding waves on the beach, you get negative ions. You may be familiar with that nice feeling that you get when you’re around a waterfall or the pounding surf. It’s pleasant.

The opposite happens with positive ions, like electrical appliances. You can get positive ions and they can make you feel yucky. What’s been discovered is that there are certain machines or little devices that generate a lot of negative ions that can be helpful with SAD. I’ve included that in the book and I’ve even directed people to where you can get the right kind of ion generator that’s going to give off enough ions to change people’s moods.

Defeating SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder): A Guide to Health and Happiness Through All Seasons

Defeating SAD: There are certain machines and little devices that generate a lot of negative ions, and they can be helpful with SAD.


I love that. That’s so fascinating but can we please switch the names of those because the positive ions make you feel bad and the negative ions make you feel good.

It is tricky and I put that in the title of the chapter, “Positive effects of negative ions.”

I’m going to check into that. I’m a big ocean girl. I love being by the sea and it’s always been a place of soothing. I grew up by the ocean in Florida. Now, I live in California. I’m like, “I totally get that. It’s fascinating.” The last question, which is a bridge question into some of the other things we’re going to talk about at the end of this conversation.

Transcendental Meditation

You mentioned in the book how mindfulness and meditation help and you also wrote a book called Super Mind, which gets into the power of transcendental meditation. We’ve seen in the last several years more and more mainstream conversation about moving into different states of mind. You put the medicine aside. You put all the other things aside and you are your own medicine by putting your mind into a state of greater ease. Can you talk a little bit about how that not only helps SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder but can really help us be more grounded and balanced in our life?

I have a long history with a certain kind of meditation called transcendental meditation. It’s a simple form of meditation. You’re taught how to think a certain word sound or mantra and that takes you into a deep place in your mind, a very lovely place of which much has been written. The effects of doing that on a regular basis once or twice a day are quite amazing. Firstly, it’s been found to lower blood pressure and be good for preventing heart attack and stroke.

In terms of developing your psyche, I’ll give you a simplistic example. I might be trying to write a book and I might be working on a difficult piece in the afternoon and I find I can’t do anymore. I go and I’ll sit back 20 to 30 minutes. I will think of my mantra, I will come back, and the words will just flow. Something’s been released in the mind.

Also, I’ll be working with a client and they’ll feel stuck. I’ll say, “Why don’t you consider learning meditation?” Somehow it unblocks them. Exactly how that happens, I don’t know, but it does and I’ve seen a time and again. In Super Mind, I give many examples of people whose single meditation has unblocked them. I talk about well-known people. Cameron Diaz filming in the Los Angeles Zoo in the heat of the afternoon finds that she just can’t get her words right. She goes and meditates in a trailer and comes back and nails the scene. That’s one example.

Prima ballerina Megan Fairchild has fainting spells in the New York City Ballet that are jeopardizing her health and career. She learns to meditate and absolutely wipes off the fainting spells. The TM removes the fainting spells and her career is restored to her without any medicines. There are many examples that I give in the book. It doesn’t have to be famous or well-known people. Those always catch our attention, but it could be you or me.

I know you wrote about this in Super Mind and I found this in myself as I’ve been meditating for years. It’s not necessarily that I have some mystical lightning experience. When I’m in meditation, it’s mostly a sense of quiet calm and peace, but what I do notice is my ability to handle the day. Also, to handle what’s coming at me. To have a little bit of space between a stimulus and a response is what I notice. If I get into a couple of days, maybe I’m over-scheduled, something’s going on, and I’m not doing my meditation, I find that I have a different quality of day. Maybe not for just one day, but it’s several days in a row. I don’t know if that’s similar to you, but I notice those subtleties.

That is so profound and so important and even expanding it a little. It influences how you come across to other people and how you feel about other people. You’re much more likely to look charitably at people if they disappoint you or if they upset you. You’re much more likely to think, “They’re having a hard day.” There’s this construct that comes out of the TM literature, which is the so-called support of nature. It feels like the world around you is collaborating with you to make your life easier. The world isn’t changing. You’re changing. You’re changing because you’re giving yourself that space between the stimulus and the response.

Support of nature is when it feels like the world around you is collaborating with you to make your life easier. Click To Tweet

It’s so beautifully said, Norman. I do think that we change and the world in us in many ways because we’re creating our world by how we see it and how we choose to respond to it all the time. This is powerful, and the more mainstream this is becoming, the better all of us will be able to handle, but it is a challenging time. You mentioned in the news, it’s a very challenging time so we need the tools to meet it.

As we transition out of SAD, the quote by Albert Camus that you have in your book was a beautiful way to encapsulate what we were just talking about. “In the midst of winter, I found there was within me an invincible summer, and that makes me happy.” For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger. Something better pushing right back, which is there, whether it’s in meditation, going inward to our strength, or doing all these things making choices every day that nourish us and help us be stronger. I know we don’t have that much time left. I want to chat a little bit longer, but any other closing comments on SAD before we pan out for a few minutes on some bigger topics?

I would say just remember we’re creatures of nature. As the wheel of the seasons turns around, we turn around. We need to adjust accordingly. Firstly, it’s great fun to be accessing what happens when the world changes to be in touch with nature, in touch with the changing light, and all the other changes that go along outside and inside. That’s the first thing.

Defeating SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder): A Guide to Health and Happiness Through All Seasons

Defeating SAD: Remember we’re creatures of nature. As the wheel of the seasons turns around, we also turn around and we need to adjust accordingly.


The second thing is to know that there are so many things you can do when any of these issues cause trouble. You’ve got this panoply of options to make yourself feel better. I would say it’s full of good news. It’s exactly as Albert Camus said. As the world pushes down, you just push back and you’ve got so many tools and methods at your disposal. That’s what I wanted to share with my readers.

Knowing Thyself

I love it so much. I would highly encourage this book to our readers because it is so full of tools and practices that will help you not only if it’s seasonal, but help you in life to be more grounded and to be able to meet these things to push back in a better way. In the last few minutes that we have, let’s push back even further. What I want the audience to know about you through all the books that you’ve written, books about poetry, books about meditation, and books about adversity is that you’ve traveled a path where you’ve gone through some very difficult moments in your life.

You sit here in front of me with the wisdom of those moments. In your book, The Gift of Adversity, you explore all the ways that we can utilize this adversity to make us more evolved and better people. I wanted to talk about the wisdom of that. In that book, you talked about knowing thyself. You mentioned this in our conversation, which is knowing your brain, knowing your body, and being who you are. Can you talk for a moment about the power of embracing that authentic self and going on this journey so that you can meet adversity in a better way?

Many problems or so many problems come about because of illusions because we think we’re better than we are or worse than we are. The Eastern concept is one of Maya of illusions. I think of that beautiful Joni Mitchell song. “It’s love’s illusions I recall. I don’t know love at all.” Even the Bohemian Rhapsody, “Is this the real life or just a fantasy?” Those are fundamental questions. Our songwriters have said it. Our poets have said it. “To thine own self be true.”

So many problems come about because of illusions, because we think we're better than we are or worse than we are. Click To Tweet

Do you remember Styx’s The Grand Illusion?

I don’t remember that.

I’m going to send you that song.

Shakespeare in his advice to Laertes by Polonius, “To thine own self be true above all.” That’s the thing you need to know. The Oracle of Delphi is saying, “Know thyself.” The distinction between what is real and what is illusion is so important. All these things that I have studied in terms of understanding the mind, my mind, and other people’s minds circle around trying to understand what is real and what can I do about it. That’s what the core of my research and writing has been all about.

This is a very existential question maybe, but to understand what is real, I’ve heard things like, “The truth is relative.” We’re always layering on our beliefs, our experiences, and our filters to what’s happening in front of us. How do we know what’s real? That’s a deep question.

It’s a good question. Even colors like yellow, red, and blue, which we would swear are real, they’re only made real because that’s how our brain interprets them. We have to appreciate it at a concrete level. We know there’s a door there because we can walk through it, which we can’t do with the wall. We have to be very literal. Great minds have shown that things that seem obvious are not always obvious. Even Einstein showed that time is not constant everywhere and that it differs.

Bending time and space, Einstein talks about that spooky dynamic of mirror and entanglement.

It’s a spooky action at a distance. A molecule on one side of the universe gets moved and some matching molecule on the other side of the universe automatically has this reciprocal shift in its configuration. We’ve got to be careful because there are these things that are at the most abstract level that most people certainly like me don’t understand. It’s like she gave me a funny look when I met her at the party. I wonder if she’s upset with me. Did I say something to hurt her feelings? You then go check it out and she says, “No. You didn’t say anything. I’ve got a toothache.” We have to accept reality on that basis at a simple level because otherwise maybe we make our lives too complicated.

I think we’re very good at making our lives complicated. As I think about working in the Compassion Lab and my love of the idea of compassion and living compassionately, something you wrote in that book is that, “Understanding is the key to love.” Can you share more about that? Whether it’s the example of the toothache, how do we seek to understand versus creating assumptions that feed the Illusion in our lives? How is understanding the key to love?

Let’s go back to our original theme here, which is seasonal affective disorder. Let’s say a man is married to a woman. It’s now autumn or winter. She’s withdrawing from him because she’s got seasonal affective disorder. Maybe she doesn’t feel like making love or maybe she doesn’t feel like going to some event and he wants to do both of the above. However, if he understands that she’s having a hard time and musters up a certain amount of compassion, reach out to her, and not take it personally, that is the key to love because then she’ll feel understood.

She’ll feel like he’s working to try to meet her where she is. She’ll feel better and then they’ll go on with their relationship. They’ll feel good about it and maybe he can say, “I’ve seen this article or this book. Take a look at it. It seems to make some sense here or is there something I can do that would make life feel a little easier?” It’s not, “How can I fix you so that you can serve my needs?” It’s not a good strategy, but, “What can I do because you seem to be having a hard time?”

We were we were doing some leadership training work. It’s very much about the inner work and how we show up as leaders. One of the statements we were discussing was the most kind and benevolent thing that you could do for another human being is to honor their experience. It’s because so often, if it’s someone we love or our child and maybe they’re in a difficult place, we do want to fix it.

Rapid Fire Questions

We don’t want it to be because we’re uncomfortable or we’re not okay with where they are. How can we not only allow them to be where they are? It doesn’t mean we don’t offer to create spaces of help and understanding. That’s something we can do, but to honor that we have our own experiences all the time. Can I end with a few rapid-fire questions that maybe aren’t that rapid? Feel free to expand on any of them. They don’t have to be one word, but I’ve got four of them for you. Let me start with the first one. Norman, what’s your definition of a good life?

A life imbued with a sense of gratitude, service to other people, fulfillment in the work that you do, the things that you choose to do, and love.

Defeating SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder): A Guide to Health and Happiness Through All Seasons

Defeating SAD: A good life is a life imbued with a sense of gratitude, service to other people, fulfillment in the work that you do and the things that you choose to do, and loving beautifully.


The next question is what is the legacy you want to leave?

It’s a very profound question. I want people to know that I worked hard and tried my best to be a good person and to contribute to making the world a little bit of a better place.

I can testify that you’ve done that. Thank you for that. What brings you the greatest peace?

I couldn’t just say one thing, but the people around me give me so much joy, and there are many people. It is the kindness that people have shown me and the kindness I try to show others. I love nature. I love the seasons. I love the changing patterns of life and of the day. I love to use my mind. I love to think about things. My dog has been a wonderful addition to my life besides the humans in my world. It’s a new experience. Also, the capacity to create the capacity to write something that other people appreciate or find value in. I can write back and say, “This is how I want to write it and it came out that way.” Those are the things that give me peace.

A lot of joy, it sounds like. As you talk, Norman, I feel like you’re in love with the mystery and you have been your whole life. It’s not just the mind but the mind is the gateway to the mystery of this life journey.

You are absolutely on target. Also, the endlessly changing and fascinating diorama that it is.

It’s so true. My last question is probably the hardest to answer simply because you have lived a life of service, depth, of exploration and you’ve gained a lot of wisdom along the way. It’s pretty tough to boil this down. What would be some of the greatest wisdom you’ve attained that you would leave us with the conversation?

I have tried to put it into my books. If you look at the books that I’ve written, they give you the answers, like meditation, going into the self, peace, and health. Also, the emotional wealth that you can get from it. That would be two books. The importance of the physical world including the light and all the other things in terms of regulating your mood would be a second piece that I would leave.

The fact that when things go wrong, sometimes they give you the most valuable and profound lessons. That’s the gift of adversity. The depth of joy and wisdom that can come with words that are arranged on a page in a way by brilliance and wonderful people that can move me and other people in ways that have surprised me, these are the things I’ll leave behind. In the personal domain, the relationships that I have had over many years that have given me so much joy. That’s more on a personal level. These other ones are an attempt to take the elements of my personal world and make them accessible to the world out there.

Sometimes, when things go wrong, they give you the most valuable and profound lessons. That's the gift of adversity. Click To Tweet

It is profoundly spoken. Many who will read this are grateful for the way you summarized all those very rich pathways that you’ve been on. As we do the things that nurture ourselves and we find our highest level of being, consciousness, and giving, then that affects the whole community and all the people that we interact with. That’s part of the gifts that you’ve brought to the people that you touched. I want to end with such gratitude for you taking the time. Not only for all that you’ve put into the world that you encapsulated but just for showing up again and again in service to the collective, to find ways to make things better, and to have us thrive. Thank you, Norman, for this time and for all that you do.

I need to thank you for the time you’ve taken to research all these things we’ve talked about, the serious effort you’ve put into reading the books and thinking about the subjects, the thoughtfulness with which you’ve put it all together, and the kindness and respect that you’ve shown me in the little space. I feel very grateful for that and full of joy that’s going to be with me all day long.

Thank you, Norman. You honor me with that statement. Thank you so much. It is received and very much appreciated. Until next time, we’ve already agreed there will be a next time. Thank you again.

Be well and stay well.


Important Links


About Norman Rosenthal

Defeating SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder): A Guide to Health and Happiness Through All SeasonsNorman Rosenthal is a world-renowned psychiatrist, public speaker, and best-selling author who is known for his innovative research and inspirational writings. He is currently Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine and is listed as one of the Best Doctors in America. Dr. Rosenthal has practiced psychiatry for over three decades, treating people with all manner of psychiatric and emotional health issues. He is also a motivational speaker and a personal and professional coach, working with people from all walks of life including CEOs, top athletes, and performing artists.

Rosenthal was born and raised in South Africa and did his medical training at the University of Witwatersrand, where he graduated with high honors. He immigrated to the US and did his psychiatric residency at Columbia in NYC before going to the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, where he began his research career in earnest. His first major research contribution was to describe and name Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) and to develop light therapy as a treatment for this novel condition. SAD – and its milder variant, the Winter Blues – are now known to affect millions of people worldwide, many of whom have benefited from the light therapy that Dr. Rosenthal pioneered.

Dr. Rosenthal is a highly cited researcher who has written over 300 scholarly articles, and authored or co-authored eight popular books. These include Winter Blues, the New York Times bestseller Transcendence, and the Los Angeles Times bestseller The Gift of Adversity. Rosenthal has conducted numerous clinical trials of medications and alternative treatments, such as Transcendental Meditation for psychiatric disorders, and the treatment of depression with Botox. He and his work have been featured on Good Morning America, The Today Show, NPR and other national media.


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