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.
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.