Why Do We Feel Better in the Sunshine?

I recently did a spot on local radio to answer the question ‘Why do we feel better in the sunshine?’ In the midst of a heat wave we can’t help but notice that spirits are up and people generally seem more upbeat. The staff at my local coffee shop look forward to the sun even though they are working indoors. Why? Well when it’s sunny, the customers are less grumpy. If  only one thing, they are not moaning about the bad weather. Research has found that a walk in nature can lift the spirits and boosts measures of self-esteem. People report feeling better. There are a number of reasons for this.

First, sunshine makes us more likely to want to do something active, such as going for a walk. Our skin’s Exposure to sunshine produces vitamin D. A deficiency in vitamin D is associated with mood disorders, as well osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease . Vitamin D has a beneficial effect on the immune system. So overall, a few minutes exposure to the sun each day can have a beneficial effect.

Sunshine also helps to regulate serotonin and melatonin. Serotonin plays an important part in the regulation of learning, mood, sleep and also may have a role in mood disorders. We have lower serotonin levels in winter which may help to explain why we feel more grumpy during gloomy weather. Melatonin regulates sleep patterns. So overall, if we can sleep in the heat, sunshine helps to regulate bodily (circadian) rhythms. Also raising mood may also have a knock on effect for pain management, so together with the serotonin and vitamin D, may have a positive effect on many physical conditions just as arthritis and rheumatism.

Psychologically, our pattern seeking brains look for congruence. Usually we associate bright days with happier times and gloomy days with unhappy times. So, at the first glimpse of a bit of sun we make this perceptual shift.  Also, judging from what some people wear it appears that a bit of sunshine can help to increase our body confidence, or make us feel more brazen, whichever way you care to view it. There’s been an e-card doing the rounds on the internet that says ‘In this heatwave, please dress for the body you have rather than the body you wish for’. People appear more daring and less self-conscious in the sun.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodAll of this demonstrates that it only needs small changes to boost confidence and self-esteem. Obviously we can’t control the weather but we can (be more daring and) control our exercise which may have the same effects as a sunny day. Taking care of the small stuff to create a knock on effect is one of the main themes in my approach to coaching and in my book Unlock your Confidence

As the weather is our main topic of small talk and there is just no pleasing some people, was moaning about the weather has almost become a national sport. I saw a Facebook comment that read ‘It’s just too hot. If I’d wanted it this hot, I would have gone abroad!’ However there are many people who will seize this opportunity and make the most of it, which is also great advice for building confidence and esteem.

Overall, psychologically, the sunshine just makes us more relaxed. Being relaxed is an optimal state as it takes us out of survival (stress) mode and into a mindset where we think more broadly and creatively. So the overall message is make the most of it and while in a more laid-back state take this time to reflect on longer term goals.

(In conversation with Annie Othen  BBC Coventry and Warwickshire, 09 July 2013)