Does sunshine make us happier?

Woman sitting on a beach

As much of Britain basks in longed-for sunshine one senses that, despite all the economic gloom, our national spirits have been lifted. We instinctively believe that warm weather makes us happier. But is it true?

Yesterday's well-being statistics suggested the opposite. The happiest region of the whole UK is the most northerly - Shetland, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides. Some islands see only around 1,000 hours of sunshine a year compared to a UK average of 1,340 hours.

And when one reads those international lists of the happiest countries, top of the league tend to be places like Norway, Sweden, Canada, Denmark and Finland. There is no correlation between well-being and warm weather - if anything it looks like the opposite.

In 1998, psychologists David Shkade and Daniel Kahneman decided to test the theory that a sunny climate equates to a sunny disposition in a paper entitled Does Living in California Make People Happy?

The two professors had noticed what they described as "a stereotyped perception that people are happier in California… anchored in the perceived superiority of the California climate." So they compared the happiness of southern Californians with Midwesterners.

Two conclusions emerged from their research: firstly, Californians were no happier than people from the Midwest with its wind and rain; second, of all the factors that affected people's life satisfaction, weather was listed at the bottom. Midwesterners moaned about the weather more than Californians, but that didn't appear to make much difference to their overall contentment.

The scientists ended their paper with a homily. "It is not unlikely that some people might actually move to California in the mistaken belief that this would make them happier," they wrote. "Our research suggests a moral, and a warning: Nothing that you focus on will make as much difference as you think."

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Psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal noticed that after his move from sub-tropical Johannesburg to seasonal New York he was less energetic in the winter months”

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During the last few decades a significant amount of research has been conducted into the relationship between mood and weather, scientists looking for a link between atmospheric condition and personal disposition. Do high temperatures make people passionate? Does precipitation dampen enthusiasm? Are people happier in summer than in winter?

Analysis in the 70s and 80s variously suggested that high pressure, high temperature and low humidity were associated with positive emotions - basically, nice weather seemed to put people in a good mood. More recent research, however, has challenged this assertion with a number of studies suggesting the link is either very small or non-existent.

One paper published in 2008 concluded that "the idea that pleasant weather increases people's positive mood in general is not supported by the findings of this study". The author, Jaap Denissen, accepted that his conclusions apparently contradicted common sense but insisted that there could be a number of factors to "explain the discrepancy between empirical results and widely held beliefs".

For example, it may be that historical associations between good weather and having enough food and shelter have been culturally transmitted down the ages. He also suggested that the discrepancy might be down to the impact on our thinking of a small number of extreme cases in which people's mental health is genuinely affected by the weather.

Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, was first described and named by the South African psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal in 1984. He noticed that after his move from sub-tropical Johannesburg to seasonal New York he was less energetic and productive in the winter months. Often described as "winter blues", Rosenthal found the condition was more prevalent in northern latitudes: virtually no-one in sunny Florida was diagnosed with the condition while almost one in 10 of the population further north in New Hampshire was said to suffer from SAD.

Rainy scene At least it's good for the garden

In Britain, the disorder is thought to affect about 7% of people - most of them suffering during the winter months, but it applies to people who become depressed at the change of any season.

The Observer newspaper columnist Barbara Ellen has written about her experience of what is sometimes called reverse-SAD: "With me, SAD hits when the days get longer and brighter," she revealed. "I know when summer is coming because suddenly I feel wrong. I don't make sense in the summer, everything is too hot, too hopeless, too bewildering, I always feel I'm half a beat behind the world playing an eternal game of catch-up."

Science is still trying to make sense of what is going on. The link between cold, dark climates and depression seems so plausible and yet Icelanders exhibit remarkably low levels of SAD. Some suggest this might be down to a genetic factor (Canadians of Icelandic origin also appear to have lower levels of SAD), while others think they may be protected by eating lots of fish, a diet high in Vitamin D.

The NHS recommends the use of light boxes for people suffering from seasonal depression - although that treatment also appears to be useful for people with non-seasonal depression. Indeed, many psychiatrists now treat SAD, not as a separate condition to be blamed on the weather, but a manifestation of a patient's more general depressive or bipolar disorder.

The British public, it seems, remains largely committed to the view that if it lived in a warm, sunny environment instead of enduring waves of Atlantic cloud and rain, everyone would be a lot happier. For proof, people confidently assert that suicide rates are higher in countries straddling the Arctic Circle.

Happy swimmers Summer has, at last, started

But proportionately, far more people kill themselves in the warmth of South Korea than in the ice of Scandinavia. Finland, which has the highest suicide rate of the Nordic nations, has a similar level to France and Belgium.

The Swedes have long tried to explode the myth that their climate makes them a depressive bunch, blaming a speech by President Eisenhower in 1960 for an association between European socialism and suicide. World Health Organisation data suggests Sweden's rate is roughly in line with South Africa, Hong Kong and New Zealand.

And yet I know that I feel chirpier when the gloomy days of a British winter give way to spring, when the clouds break and sunshine strokes my face, when the interminable flatness from creamy skies is replaced by sharp contrasts of light and shade.

Immediately following a rain shower, when the sun bursts out and sparkles on puddles through clean, fresh air, colours brighter and senses somehow keener, those moments are profoundly exhilarating. Perhaps it is not the sunshine that matters so much as the pleasure we get when our weather changes.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    I've spent the past 15 months in Australia and on my way home I had a two week break in California and expected to see rain for the first time in a long time when I landed in London on Monday. More fool me, it's been pleasantly hot since my return but I fear it won't last. As a Glaswegian, I'd offer the idea that the sun is only part of it - a beautiful blue sky every day beats a gloomy grey one!

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Only one thing can make us happy. Nothing else. Kant, the greatest. "Do what is right." Do only to others as you would wish them to do to you. The "categolical imperative."

    Do anything else and you have no consciene, no spirit, no soul. Do anything else and you are a criminal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    NO not if it is hot. Heat and sunshine are revolting and almost no one actually likes it when they have it. It only seems better theoretically when it is raining or really cold. Spring days of sunshine and cool air are by far the best.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    I've been feeling exceptionally happy for the last few days since the weather changed, in spite of the fact that I've got backache from all the work I've been doing in the garden. I feel totally revived, even excited by the weather! (I must admit that I'm a sun addict though). I live a few minutes from the sea and I've been swimming every day since the sun came out. Glorious!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Interestingly, I share the same feeling as Barbara Ellen as mentioned in the article. Sadness, however, can be due to the lack of a sense of achievement which spills over into all that we do and all our social connections. Inevitably, and irrespective of wherever we go, we take our problems with us; there is no hiding place from ourselves; surely the psychologists know of this simple trait.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    I've really enjoyed the weather this week, particularly when cycling in and out of work. We haven't had a proper British summer for years. We expect it to rain in the summer but there's been far too much this year. Despite the heat I much prefer this to a never ending deluge.
    If this lasts more than a fortnight there will be hosepipe bans back in force;)

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Proof is, no Tropical Country will ever spend one cent of tax payers money in founding a spurious research to prove that "The sun make us happier", they are far too busy enjoying life and dancing merengue.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    Sunshine is great, but this heat is horrible if you have to actually do anything or go anywhere. I have a new puppy and the last couple of days have been dreadful for all of us! Bring on some normal temperatures (and even rain)! I'd be happy if the temperature never tipped over 25 deg C.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    I agree sun does make a difference to mood... I live on the coast and today swam in the sea for the first time this year! The feeling of the warm sun on your skin is like no other and I think many of the hundreds of other sun starved beach goers would agree with me :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    @86 sameoldfaeces

    I think you will find that most of those hundreds of thousands of Brits wished didnt move out there anyway. Most Spanish people i know are more misreable when they are back in Spain. And the Danes are meant to be the happiest people on earth,and they get less sunshines than the U.K

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    I don't blame it on the sunshine...

    ...I blame it on the boogie.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    Well the hundreds of thousands of Brits who live on the Costas haven't moved there for the Benidorm Fish and Chip shops, nor the language difference....

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    Sunshine can be nice, but the temperature doesn't appeal to me. For me the last couple of days have been bearable , but not comfortable.

    I honestly prefer a cold winter day with frost on the ground, and a chill in the air. Winter days seem calmer to me, summer days feel sticky and oppressive.

    That said, I do like the variation we get. A constant weather would bore me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    @ Evan

    I once went to Australia. Even though it was lovely and sunny,the people were the most arrogant,vicious self indulged people ive ever met. Arriving back in Newcastle to its warm friendly citizens was delightful despite the cold weather. Go figure...

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Living on the equator, 86F was cool at night.! Living in the UK 86F feels uncomfortable Reason - the sun sets at 6pm every day, so by sleep time its quite pleasant. The polutiion also stops the sunburn of the 100F daytime temps. Humidty is the killer - forever in the shower. Nice not having to put on a coat to go out though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    I will always believe when the sun is out, people are happier. Years in retail have shown me this - customers are, on the whole, noticeably more prone to complain and be short tempered when it's miserable weather. I get much more reasonable and calmer responses from people when the Sun is out. I imagine the effect is more prevalent in a country that doesn't see the Sun all the time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    You would think as an Italian i would say yes,but if ive got to be honest. I would easily take the Lake District over places like Marbella anyday. They may be cold,but they are wild,majestic and proud. A lot of these sunny places are either godawful or too primmed and proper. Sun wont go amissed,but sometimes i do like cool weather better,and i would certainly rather be too cold then too hot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    For me, yes it does! I suffered from depression most of my teenage years and well into my adulthood & was put on medication. I went to live in Cairo for 4 years & my husband noticed a vast improvement in my moods. I ate less, became more sociable and active because I couldn't wait to get out in the sun, and I'm now off the meds and plan to keep it that way! Just a shame I had to come back here!

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Yes sunshine makes people happy ...when they don't see it often! In my city in Australia we have a lot of sun, but people are often ambivalent to summers and take them for granted.

    I almost prefer northern European summers because people really celebrate the season and get excited!

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    I came on here thinking i would be the only one who doesnt like the sun but seems there are a few of us! I sometimes think i have reverse SAD as i love winter but find when summer comes along i get more down. for me summer is just uncomfortable. I am in good shape but i sweat a lot so summer makes it worse. Give me a crisp winter morning over a hot sticky summer any day of the week!


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