Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Do the summer months make us happy?




Happiness is defined by psychologists as the frequent experience of positive emotions, such as joy, interest and pride (see Lyubomirsky, King & Diener, 2005, listed below). A series of studies carried out by psychologists has assessed the popular belief that the weather can affect happiness and mood. These studies arose from everyday observations of people declaring how depressing they find the weather on a rainy day, or how uplifted they feel during a sustained spell of sunshine. Psychologists have applied a scientific approach to the investigation of how weather and mood might be related. To be scientific requires taking objective measurements of people’s mood and mapping that against an accurate record of the meteorological conditions at the time. When such an approach is taken, the relationship between weather conditions and happiness is rather a weak one.

A typical study was carried out recently by some Dutch psychologists (see Klimstra and colleagues, 2011, listed below). The happiness of over 800 volunteers was measured by having them rate three statements about their mood, e.g. “I feel content”, on a scale from “not at all” to “very much”. They did this several times over a 17 month period. For each day on which a questionnaire was completed, information was obtained from the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute on average temperature, hours of rainfall and hours of sunshine.

When the questionnaire responses were compared with the meteorological data, there was little correspondence between them. For half the participants, happiness was completely unaffected by sunshine, rainfall and temperature. For the other half of participants the relationships were more complicated, with some people being found to be more happy in typically summery weather, but others being found to be less happy in the same conditions. Even here, though, the relationships were not that strong with the greatest amount to which the weather influenced happiness being no more than 15%.

These findings, and similar ones from other studies, suggest that the relationship between the weather and our happiness is much less important than people think. Why might this be? One explanation is that a “focussing illusion” occurs (see Schkade & Kahneman, 1998, listed below). The illusion is such that in the depths of winter we imagine an idealised hot sunny day and focus on the differences, e.g. warmth rather than cold, and sunlight rather than cloud. In focussing on these differences we forget that a real-life hot summer day might include negative as well as positive features - such as having to go to work, child supervision, feeling too hot, and so on. Focussing on ideal examples rather than realistic ones makes us overestimate the extent to which warm sunny days will make us feel happy.

The generally held belief of a strong association between summer weather and happiness does not stand up to scientific scrutiny. Nevertheless, many people believe such a link exists, and therefore the connection between summer weather and happiness is a powerful psychological idea. The potency of such ideas should not be underestimated. After all, the placebo pill contains no drug and yet has been seen to be an effective treatment for a range of medical conditions (Eccles, 2002). A summer mind-set is likely to be a far more valuable asset in the pursuit of positive mood and happiness than summer weather itself.


References
Eccles, R. (2002). The powerful placebo in cough studies? Pulmonary Pharmacology & Therapeutics 15; 303-308.

Klimstra, T.A., Frijns, T., Keijsers, L., Denissen, J.J.A., Raaijmakers, Q.A.W., van Aken, M.A.G., Koot, H.M., van Lier, P.A.C. & Meeus, W.H.J. (2011). Come rain or come shine: Individual differences in how weather affects mood. Emotion 11, 1495-1499.

Lyubomirsky, S, King, L. & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Bulletin 131, 803-855.

Schkade, D.A. & Kahneman, D. (1998). Does living in California make people happy? A focusing illusion in judgments of life satisfaction.  Psychological Science 9, 340-346.

22 comments:

  1. This is pretty interesting. We know that SAD is worst in the winter time, although that has less to do with weather and more to do with photochemical processing, so this follows that line of research well.

    It would be interesting to see this study done with a population experiencing mood disorders or having experienced trauma in the summer, and see just how different (or not) the results are.

    Great site! :)

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  2. I too agree with Chrisy here. As I read the blog, leaving aside what it may mean to a lay person, as someone working with individuals who have mood disorders and specifically, SAD, this line of study could surely reveal interesting perspectives.

    Look forward to seeing more bei g done in this line of research.

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  3. Thanks for the post. This is a really interesting idea. I wonder if the psychologists in Edmonton agree? I think it could be true. I know that during the summer I am happier than I am during the winter. I appreciate the thoughts they were really informational.

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  4. Thanks for the great info, and I think that the psychologists have the coolest jobs. Because you get to understand how the brain operates. And what makes the brain tick so to say.

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  5. Psychologists are the people who analyze our actions, behavior & know us better than ourselves.
    Kudos to all Analyzers.

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  6. Winter blues is a very common term used and it signifies the state of mind that we are in during the winters due to the dark gloomy weather. I gues the sunshine in the summers makes us happy and bright.

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  7. My friend has been thinking about taking his kids to an adolescent psychologist in Denver, where he lives. I think it's a good idea to get checked out at least once.

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  8. Most people do not recognize their Bipolar and instead feel there is something that is not right with them and it can be harmful. People may thing Bipolar disorder is a bad thing but in real we all have it. Bipolar brings mental and physical reaction or starts our natural warning system of to make ourselves safe and sound from getting harmed or fight against any harmful situation.

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  10. Actually good post. You explained in simple terms. It will help people to identify their mood easily

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  11. Wow this is really interesting. I'm quite surprised with the results as I had always thought that during the summer months people in general tended to be most content, although I've always supposed that be down to the increased amounts of vitamin D being absorbed into the system. This has definitely altered my perspective a little, it was very interesting to read. I also feel that the "focussing illusion" seems like a very explanation. I've never heard of, or thought of, that before but I'm interested to learn more details.

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