Surprising ways weather affects your mood
Rain giving you the grumps? Astha Gupta investigates the unexpected ways Mother Nature can affect your mental wellbeing
When I moved to Singapore from Sydney with my family for a few years, my husband turned into a grump. While I thrived in the glorious climate, his temperament took a dive. “It never changes,” he moaned, “It’s boring.” My mood, on the other hand, was as sunny as the skies. If the theory is that sunshine increases feelings of happiness, I wondered why we had such opposing reactions to the exact same conditions.
Think about how much the weather impacts your life – you plan holidays and weddings around it, you check it in the morning to help you decide what to wear and it will certainly affect the activities you get involved in, such as going for a run in the park on a clear day or hanging out on the couch on a rainy one.
But what about your mood and overall emotional wellbeing? Some scientists believe that weather has a huge influence on our mood and behaviour.
“Climate change is affecting our weather through global warming, which in turn, is leading to increased mental-health problems,” says Dr Helen Berry, professor of climate change and mental health at The University of Sydney.
Others think the effect is more subtle. Nick Haslam, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, explains there are many more variables involved than a simple causal link of light equals happy and dark equals sad – or SAD (seasonal affective disorder), a much-talked-about seasonal affliction.
“If you live in a place where gloomy weather is common, for example, it’s less likely to affect you badly than if it’s atypical,” Haslam says. “If you’re used to lower temperatures, a heatwave will have more negative effects on your mood and bodily comfort than if you’re used to living in a hot environment.”
Read on to discover some surprising ways weather can affect your mental state.
CLOUDY AND DULL SKIES
Feeling happy makes you think clearly, right? Wrong.
Research conducted by psychologists at the University of New South Wales has shown that people perform better on memory tasks on dull days, when your mood is likely to be lower, than you do on sunny ones, when your mood is likely to be brighter.
PEOPLE TEND TO PERFORM BETTER AT MEMORY TASKS ON DULL DAYS THAN THEY DO ON SUNNY DAYS
Quizzed on 10 unusual objects they had just seen in a store, shoppers correctly recalled three times as many objects on the cloudy days as on sunny ones.
Study lead Joseph Forgas explains that in a negative mood, people think things through more thoroughly and pay more attention to detail as people tend to be more confident and less focused on their surroundings when in a good mood.
“People do better at tasks involving attention to detail in the external world when they are in negative-mood states,” says Haslam.
LONG, SUNNY DAYS
You produce vitamin D when your skin gets sunlight, which promotes your brain’s production of serotonin, the ‘feel-good’ hormone. Less sunlight means more melatonin – the hormone that signals that it’s time for bed. So more sunlight means more energy, says Haslam.
This ‘happy’ feeling can affect other areas of your life – one US study found that people gave more generous tips on sunny days, while a French study discovered women were more receptive to flirtatious advances when the sun was shining.
Again, Haslam cautions these are not simple cause-effect scenarios: “The sunny season is often the time people take vacations, so that could be a reason they’re more relaxed.”
EXTREME HEAT OR RAINFALL
While sunny days seem to improve your mood, the opposite can happen when warmth becomes extreme heat.
In fact, heatwaves have been linked to increased incidences of violence and aggressive behaviour. “Extreme heat leads to increased aggression, instances of rape, domestic violence, riots and irritation,” according to Dr Susie Burke, a senior psychologist at the Australian Psychological Society.
This is a concerning revelation seeing as the world is expected to get even hotter in the coming decades due to global warming.
A significant analysis carried out at the University of California, Berkeley found that extreme heat as well as extreme rainfall increased the incidences of conflict – both interpersonal, as in person-on-person violence, and intergroup conflict, as in riots and wars.
Again, the experts have put forward different explanations for why this could be.
One theory suggests that aggression is brought on by the increased physical stress on the body and discomfort. Another is that because more people are out and about on warmer days, there are more opportunities for crimes to occur.
Burke adds people with mental-health issues are particularly at risk in the heat: “People with mental-health problems may be vulnerable as some psychiatric medications are less effective in extreme heat and some impair the body’s ability to sweat and the person can’t cool down.”
If the rain is too heavy, your irritability could increase, Burke adds. “Extreme rainfall can also lead to increased aggression because people may feel their sense of wellbeing is missing.”
FLOODS AND DROUGHTS
“Droughts and floods – both caused by extreme weather conditions – increase people’s physical and psychological stress. This is due to loss of income as well as breakdown of social structures,” says Berry.
Burke adds that while such events can result in mental strain, such events can also strengthen social bonds.
“Extreme weather disasters are often chaotic and focused on survival at impact, but after a few days, disaster experts note there’s a rebound or honeymoon phase, which is characterised by great solidarity, co-operation, goodwill and help,” says Burke.
“There can be a great sense of ‘we’re all in this together’. Strangers come together to help each other and community spirit strengthens.”
So whether the sun is shining bright or clouds are blocking its rays, your mood will be affected – for better or worse.