i tried it

Can Golden Hour Fix Your Brain?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

I Tried It is a micro-series where Cut writers test popular mindfulness practices to see if they improve their mental health and, even perhaps, their whole life.

In early 2021, I decided to become a “girl who runs,” mostly motivated by the holiday break I’d spent with my sister, who has been a habitual runner since cross-country in high school. And for most of January, February, and March, at least three times a week, I rose sometime around 5 a.m., went outside (where it was very cold!!!), and ran in circles around the small park one block behind my apartment. Often it was dark at the start of these runs, and by my last couple of laps, I got to distract myself from my full-body discomfort by focusing on the sunrise. Those mornings were peaceful, sometimes even joyful, and often followed by a pretty good day.

In mid-2022, this version of myself is absolutely foreign to me. Rising with the dawn? Running? These days, I’m too exhausted and depressed thanks to an unforgiving schedule, too much time doomscrolling, and physical and emotional burnout to even think about starting the day that way.

When I’m in deep depresso mode, feeling vaguely lonely, I often turn to a specific podcast: On Being With Krista Tippett. Upon first hearing about it, I’d assumed, based on the title, that it was your typical toxic positivity podcast — empty platitudes, corny self-help content — but I found that, actually, Tippett is a thoughtful, talented interviewer. Now I listen regularly. To a spirituality podcast. I am not ashamed!

Which brings me back to sunrise. On a recent depressingly gray afternoon, I put on On Being to keep me company while I washed dishes. The interviewee mentioned being asked for advice by someone struggling with their mental health. He advised the person to watch the sunrise and the sunset every day for a week and see how they felt at the end of the week. It reminded me of those early mornings the year before, and just the thought of watching the sun rise and set every day made me feel comforted. I decided to try it.

The first morning was the most successful. It was a Sunday, the first day in May, and it was cold and dewy and fresh outside. The sky was just starting to turn a faint tangerine color, lighting up the drizzly clouds. I walked to a larger park near my apartment in hopes of getting a better view, but I still struggled to see the sun; the horizon was blocked by buildings, trees, and construction equipment. I found a spot where I could watch through a wire fence and spent a solid 30 minutes actually watching the sun go up, listening to birds chirping, and letting the drizzle dampen my hair. I went home and spent the next three hours obliterating my to-do list. I was in awe of myself.

Tragically, things went downhill from there. A few factors contributed to this outcome: First, it was an extremely rainy week. On most of the mornings I managed to get up in time to watch, it was too cloudy for any sun at all to peek through, and on two mornings, it was raining hard enough that I needed an umbrella. Second, I chose possibly the worst week I could have. In my day-to-day, I work as the Cut’s social editor, and that Monday was both the Met Gala and the leak of the Supreme Court draft opinion. I went to bed after midnight nearly every night thanks to a combination of news coverage and general doomscrolling. It was a grim week.

So my attempt at watching the sun rise and set every day for a week unequivocally failed. I missed multiple sunsets and slept through multiple sunrises. However! The week was not a total failure. As I understand it, the purpose of watching the sky while the sun rises and sets is not about some magical thing that happens only in those moments, although it does feel like a miraculous thing to witness, every time. It’s about giving yourself time and space to exist in relationship with your surroundings. It’s about deep observation and deep listening.

In the early mornings, doused in dewy air, I relished both the cloak of traffic-free, sleepy silence that slowly evaporates as the city wakes up and the chance to watch the buzzing activities of the local fauna. Sunsets are less quiet, but the golden hour glow seems to calm everything down and remind me to breathe. Racing thoughts that seem so important during the day slow into a pleasant stroll I can choose to join, only if I want to. Paying close attention to my surroundings, and not myself, actually allows me to feel more comfortable with myself and whatever is going on because, in the grand scheme, I’m small. But more than that, I’m a small piece of a huge multidimensional puzzle. Feeling connected to the world around me never fails to connect me with what I like most about myself and the experience of being human. And yes, I realize I sound like a spirituality podcast myself.

One morning toward the end of the week, my roommate offered to join me on my sunrise-watching quest, and we decided to wake up extra early to bike to a building I used to live in. That building had roof access, and I still knew the code to get inside. I was exhausted — I’d gotten maybe three hours of sleep. But within five minutes of our bike ride, I was suddenly alive. Like, I was smiling. Laughing, even, at the absurdity of my aggressively good mood. And when we got up to the roof, I watched the flocks of birds coasting across the purple-soaked clouds, the orange bleeding into pink, casting a warm glow onto my roommate’s face, a few early risers opening up shop on the streets below. My brain felt like it was taking a warm, relaxing bath.

Was sacrificing rest to do a thing that was supposed to improve my mental health worth it? Maybe. If you have a clear week and are confident in your ability to get your eight hours, it’s definitely worth a try. Mostly I’d recommend taking yourself for a little walk, having a little sit, and just watching the world unfold around you. At any time of day, I find that practice is what helps me ground myself and step outside the tangled mess of my mind.

Can Golden Hour Fix Your Brain?