Now that the warm weather has finally arrived, smiles are starting to return to faces and frozen fingers are beginning to thaw. After nearly 6 months of spine-tingling cold it seems that we are all drawing a deep sense of satisfaction from watching the mercury rise.
But bizarrely, this well-established link between sunshine and feeling good may well be
another one of those popular misconceptions. A cursory examination of last-year’s ‘well being’ statistics reveals that the happiest regions of the UK were found at higher latitudes, including the Shetland Isles and the Outer Hebrides, where annual hours of sunshine were 340 below the national average. Support comes from the list of the world’s happiest countries, which is consistently topped by northerly nations like Norway, Sweden, Canada and Denmark, none of which are known for their prodigious quantities of warm weather.
The association between sunshine and feeling happy was first put forward in scientific circles during the 1970s and 80s. Various studies during this period apparently suggested that a combination of high pressure, high temperatures and low humidity were all associated with positive emotions. Basically, nice weather put people in a good mood.
However, more recent analyses have quashed these earlier findings. Most notable are the studies carried out in the late 1990s by psychologists David Schkade and Daniel Kahneman. After observing what they described as “ a sterotyped perception that people are happier in California”, the two doctors sought to re-test the validity of the theory that sunny climates lead to a sunny disposition. In comparing the happiness of souther Californians with Midwesterners they reached two important conclusions. 1) Californians were no happier than people from the Midwest and 2) of all the factors that affect the life satisfaction of the participants, weather was consistently listed at the bottom.
What makes these findings so hard to accept, is that they seemingly run contrary to our common sense. Dr Jaap Denissen, the author of a 2008 paper supporting the work of Schkade and Kahneman, offers two plausible explanations for this apparent discrepancy. First he suggests that our belief that good weather creates good moods could well be a memetic atavism; a historical association which has been culturally transmitted down the ages so that it take on the appearance of fact. But more interestingly, he suggests that our perception may well be being skewed by a small number of extreme cases, in which people’s mental health is genuinely affected by prevailing weather patterns.
Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, was first described by Dr Norman Rosenthal in the 1980’s, who experienced a personal loss of energy and productivity following his move from Johannesburg to the more seasonal climes of New York. Rosenthal demonstrated that this condition was relatively widespread, and was far more common in northern latitudes. Indeed, whilst hardly anyone in Florida was diagnosed with SAD, 1 in 10 of the population of New Hampshire were said to be sufferers.
So perhaps this is just another classic example of us Britons using the weather as an excuse. When we’re fed up and things are going wrong, it’s far easier to blame it on a lack of sunshine rather than spend time looking for the real root cause. But, chances are, if you’re feeling down, then it’s going to take more than a little bit of sun to brighten up your day.