Science of happiness - sunshine

Does sun equal happiness? Anna Jastrzembska wonders if North East greyness dooms us to gloom

23rd November 2015

live for the short moments when sun peaks out from behind the clouds. I am not alone. The idea that sun is closely related to happiness is deeply rooted in our culture. Happiness is long summer days; it’s drinking mojitos under a palm tree and watching the sun reflect of the ocean waves. You can “walk on sunshine” and “be somebody’s sunshine.” So should we all update our address to Newcastle, New South Wales?

Happiness surveys show that UK residents are happiest in northernmost regions, and, let’s be honest, Orkney, Shetland and the Outer Hebrides aren’t tropical islands. In the US, Californians are no happier than people in the Midwest. Nordic Countries and Canada always top the lists of the happiest countries. Does it mean that sun is irrelevant for our happiness?

Yes and no. Scientists have argued both ways for ages, so let me be very sceptical here. If a study was conducted in England, Sweden or New York, sunshine doesn’t equal happiness. If the scientists come from California or the UAE, then, suddenly, lack of sun changes everything. Am I the only one seeing slight bias here...?

"PEOPLE WITH SAD tend to be more energetic and productive in summer, and crave carbs, gain weight and suffer from hypersomnia during winter"

Let’s stick to the facts. First of all, it depends on your temperament and where you are from. Statistically speaking, if you grew up in Britain your mood is less likely to be negatively affected by miserable weather. However, long winters in the far North are linked to antisocialness, loss of libido, and melancholy. Two scientific conditions linked directly with weather: SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) and meteopathy. People with SAD are easily upset by weather changes. They tend to be more energetic and productive in summer, and crave carbs, gain weight and suffer from hypersomnia during winter. It’s more common the further North you go, however, it is estimated that only 7% of Britons suffer from SAD. Then there’s meteopathy, when bad weather not only affects your mood but also provokes a more physical response, such as headaches or muscle pains. Essentially, it all comes down to you, your genes and brain.

So why when I google “happiness” do all the pictures either feature bright sunshine or the colour yellow? Why do we associate colour yellow with happiness? Why is the original happy emoji yellow, and resembles the sun?

Just because sun doesn’t improve our life satisfaction, it doesn’t mean that sunshine doesn’t improve our mood. Quite the opposite- sun is the best source of vitamin D and studies repeatedly link low vitamin D levels to sadness. There is also a lot of socio-psychology involved. We tend to go on holidays in summer, choose to  visit warm places, and, above all, have fun. The next time you feel sun on your face, you remember all the good times in Italy. Also, to involve some social science, happiness is constructed by society (and media) as warmth, summer and the colour yellow. It’s a semiotic code that isn’t always logical but you understand it-  in the same way darkness is bad, a heart symbolises love and the sun stands for happiness.

Let’s stress it one more time: happiness is subjective. Some people thrive in sunshine, some are fine with more subtle, Danish hygge. And I think this is it. Enjoy long autumn evenings, snuggled up with a book as well as stray sunrays on your face as you walk through a park. It’s the little things in life.

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