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, Home editor Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this
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    Comment number 117.

    this is silly money spent! If you like sun and or the outdoors then good weather and sunshine will effect your mood for the beter. I just worked and played in Iceland for 6 weeks and virtually all the local Icelanders told me in the winter with little daylight they are much more depressed and in the summer much happier..

  • rate this
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    Comment number 116.

    Yes it does, and I left the UK for it - in SW France we're at 37°C today, and have been swimming in an unheated pool since April; It might sound petty but when it's grey I'm just not motivated.

    If you look at nordic suicides then they do rise in the winter months - honest

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 115.

    Lived in Brazil for a couple of years now. The problem is that it is what you are used to. I have Brazilian friends who lived in the UK and left because they hated the weather. The majority of my friends here surf / go sailing / play beach volleyball at least every weekend and sometimes after work. It is simply not possible to do these activities every day in the UK.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 114.

    In addition to the weather, some people in California have been looking at the impact the spending on money has on your happiness. They use research that show's people who spend $5 on someone else will increase their happiness, while people that spend $5 on themselves have no change in their happiness that day. See:

    http://astate4society.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/pro-social-welfare/

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 113.

    The international comparisons may be problematic if there are more powerful influences than the weather.

    eg. the scandanavian countries may be very cohesive, with good sense of community and social system providing a sense of security. This might be so large an effect as to outweigh the effects of less sun.

    Interesting to see if this changes as those countries are becoming less cohesive

  • rate this
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    Comment number 112.

    Does not the incidence of rioting increase in fine weather ?

  • rate this
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    Comment number 111.

    Does sunshine make us happier?

    Yes! Of course!

    But not half as much as hunting down 'tax dodgers'

  • rate this
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    Comment number 110.

    Sunshine definitely makes me happier and more motivated. High temperatures are pleasant too, at least for short spells - but it's the sunshine that does the business.
    The effect diminishes after long spells of sunny weather - but this is a rare occurrence in the UK!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 109.

    I think it probably does. I like the fact that most Brits spend a lot of time complaining about the grim weather but as soon as the sun comes out they change radically.

    I live abroad in a place which is predominantly sunny even in winter. However, when we get a couple of days cloud or rain, you can see the frowns on the faces of the people!!

  • rate this
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    Comment number 108.

    I've disliked the sun and summer for as long as I can remember, summers are hell to me.
    Hot days are spend indoors with curtains closed, I try to sleep during the day and live during the night.
    When I go outside the sun blinds me and lukewarm precooked air sickens me.
    To add to that, anti social behaviour goes up, open windows, loud music, garden parties, half naked people, everyone making noise.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 107.

    I dislike being in the sun, and being awake during the day is just a drag. Unfortunately, I currently live in Louisiana. Yesterday it was 98 F at two in the afternoon and 100 at 5 pm. That's what happens here - it gets hotter as the day goes on. Today was 102 with humidity about 55 percent. That's typical for central Louisiana during the summer. Makes my brain shut down...

  • rate this
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    Comment number 106.

    I think it's what you are used to. Most people in England can tolerate cloudy overcast skies for weeks on end. Here in Johannesburg three or four days of cloudy skies is enough to make people depressed.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 105.

    Given that Midwest USA has been suffering from record breaking heat and drought, I can definitely say the sunshine hasn't made me feel better lately. I want to see some clouds and rain!

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 104.

    Sunshine makes me happy when it's cold, like when it suddenly goes cold in autumn. Absolutely my favourite time of the year. Nothing makes me smile more than frozen red and gold leaves crunching beneath my feet, seeing my breath in the air and snuggling into my scarf while the sun shines happily above me. Good times :)

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 103.

    Not if you're a member of the Government

  • rate this
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    Comment number 102.

    @96 You do realise the Categorical Imperative by Immanuel Kant has little to do with happiness but instead morality. Quoting a long dead philosopher to try and prove an unrelated point does the opposite of what you believe it does.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 101.

    Yes!

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 100.

    Does sunshine make us happier?

    Not if you're a believer in global warming , no
    Every temperature rise is a harbinger of doom

    doom I say doom
    we're all dooomed

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 99.

    When I read things like this, I think to myself 'and how long did it take someone to figure it out?' As someone who has suffered with major depressive disorders and PTSD for years (now recovered for the most part), I can tell you that when it's sunny and warm, my energy levels do increase and I'm in a better mood. If it's too hot, though, there is little benefit to be had.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 98.

    Surely this is a purely subjective argument? There are people like me who love the sunny, warm weather we've been having. It does indeed make me happier. Then there are those who loathe the heat (perhaps they have a skin condition, or are disrupted in some other way). The hot weather does not make them happy. Besides, how is happiness measured? We're opening a whole can of subjectivity worms here.

 

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