Does the sun really make you happier?

The Good Life Letter 

11th May 2018

  • Why it is time to think happier thoughts
  • ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ and other factors in happiness
  • The reasons why sunny days can make a difference to health
It is very easy to become one of life’s moaners.

Believe me I recognise the trait in myself all too often. Reading back over the last year’s newsletters the tone and topics tend more to the argumentative and angry rather than the light and calm.

All too often some politician, medic or journalist says something that gets my dander up and these issues play on my mind.

With a beautiful week of sun behind us I felt it necessary today to look on the bright side a little more.

Things like Brexit, the unfathomable American President and our poorly served NHS can get a man down if they have a chance, but with my garden a verdant green, the birds dancing around the feeders and my arms and legs showing the first signs of a tan, how can any of these things be that important?

I’m not alone in this more positive outlook either.

Folk in the street are smiling and saying a cheery ‘hello’ to their fellow man, children are skipping to school and older friends are out and about in the garden with the warmth easing winter aches.

You must have noticed similar happenings in your own part of the world too? As I lazed on the sun lounger over the Bank Holiday weekend I was pondering why better weather seems to lift the mood and whether there is any science to back this up.

The results of my research might surprise you.

Better weather, better mood

One thing for certain is that the effect of dark days and long nights in winter can cause significant problems for many people as a result of a condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) which is known to afflict about 10% of UK adults.

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.

But from what I have been able to discover from the scientific literature we might be misguided in our thinking.
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 conditions and personal disposition.

A study into well being in the UK made the startling discovery that 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.

I would argue that the case for being happy in the most northerly part of our isles has more to do with being a long way from the idiots in Parliament and a lot closer to nature, rather than the loss of a few hundred hours of sun every year.

Another study comparing the health and happiness of sun-drenched California with the damper and darker Mid Western states also concluded that the sunshine had no effect on mood and that anyone who moved to warmer and sunnier climes expecting a change in their outlook on life would not find benefit.

There goes one of my arguments for spending longer in the Algarve then!

In virtually every study and research article I have read it seems that the average temperature and number of sunshine hours makes little difference to national mood, but maybe the reasons we get a boost from a few days when the sun has its hat on are more to do with us as individuals than collectively as a nation.

What has the sun ever done for us!

The sub head above unashamedly draws upon the classic ‘what have the Romans ever done for us’ from Monty Pythons Life of Brian in that clearly the Romans created a much better world for the indigenous Palestinians, and the same is true for us and the sun.

The fact that sunshine has a positive effect upon our physiology is well proven.

In warmer temperatures and bright light conditions our bodies produce the ‘feel good’ neuro-transmitter serotonin and decreases the brain chemical that makes us feel sleepy and lethargic called melatonin.

This means an increase in positive thought, energy levels and engagement with others.

But high levels of sunshine do more than just change our emotional outlook, there are also physical benefits too due to the production of vitamin D, the essential factor in healthy cell and bone growth, as well as being proven to reduce inflammation and help stimulate immune function.

Being exposed to the sun can lower blood pressure, create stronger bones and teeth, reduce the risk of breast and colon cancer, and can help to cure skin conditions including psoriasis and eczema.

Now those are reasons to be cheerful if you have arthritis, lingering coughs and colds and low energy levels – but like I say these are more personal and probably wouldn’t register on a national scale.

Without doubt 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.

So, for now I am going to think a little more positively and try to be lighter in my mood...

...I said I would try, but I can’t promise anything!

Yours, as always


Ray

 


 

 


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