With skies unseasonably grey, rains unusually heavy and the mercury stubbornly low after one of our damper springs, Melburnians could be forgiven for wondering, “Is it just me, or is all this weather a bit of a downer?”
Turns out this is a legitimate question.
What long-term residents may feel in their bones – even if only grudgingly admitted to smug northerners – psychologists say has at least some basis in fact: There is indeed evidence that dreary weather can lead to poorer moods.
Sunny weather, which is on the way, is likely to lift our collective mood.Credit:The Age
And happily, when the sun breaks through in more than winks, as it is finally predicted to do this coming week, we can feel a corresponding lift. If only just a bit – though it’s not entirely measurable.
“There is strong research evidence showing there is a link between gloomy weather and gloomy moods,” said Nick Haslam, professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne.
“There is good evidence that being exposed to sunny weather enhances mood … on average, so people do tend to feel more flat when it’s cloudy and gloomy.
“People who say, ‘I feel a bit flat because of all this rain and the unseasonal cold/wet’ may well be right.”
Though the link between sunny weather and happy feelings is weaker than many imagine, Haslam has written that sunlight has been found to “boost positive moods, dampen negative moods and diminish tiredness”.
And there is science behind this.
Humans have specialised photoreceptors in our eyes that feed to areas of the brain associated with emotional regulation and our circadian clock, said Sean Cain, associate professor of psychology at Monash University. Sunlight can also act positively on the brain’s fear centre, he said.
His group at the Monash Institute of Cognitive and Clinical Neurosciences has found plenty of light (which was thin on the ground this spring and early summer) does enhance our mood. And we miss it.
“We generally feel like we’re in a better mood when we have lots of light exposure,” Cain said. “When it’s gloomy and dark, we feel directly like we’re in less of a good mood.
“That feeling you get when you go outside and it’s a bright sunny day and you’re getting lots of light, there’s a direct impact on circadian photo-reception, which is why light therapy works and you feel good on bright days.
“We are more outward-focused and motivated to do things; under dimmer lights we tend to ruminate more and have a more inward focus.”
There is good mood news, though, even when the weather is bad, according to Joe Forgas, professor of psychology at UNSW Sydney.
“Interestingly, negative mood was associated with some surprising benefits – when in a bad mood, people tend to pay more attention to the world around them,” Forgas said.
“And we found that people paid greater attention to, and had more accurate memories about the objects they saw when visiting a shop compared to people experiencing a good mood on sunny, bright days.”
This suggests negative mood has an evolutionary, signalling function, “operating like a mild alarm signal triggering more cautious, attentive and careful thinking strategies”.
Aiden Baxter felt symptoms of seasonal depression over Melbourne’s winter but thinks summer sun will help.Credit:Justin McManus
Melbourne record label owner Aiden Baxter experienced symptoms of seasonal depression during the cold weather, which hampered his ability to enjoy his passion for music.
“As soon as it came to winter I was sort of giving up on my passions and felt no drive to experience them,” Baxter said.
“I just feel overall completely flat and dull inside.”
Baxter said he struggled to function and focus on doing thingsand that his symptoms contributed to the breakdown of a romantic relationship.
“It has made me less of an emotional, loving, heartfelt partner.”
Summer has brought some hope; Baxter is looking forward to soaking up some sun in Brisbane when he visits family for Christmas.
Most people who say they feel less than happy when the weather looks sad are not suffering from the diagnosable mental health condition Seasonal Affective Disorder, said Dr Ben Bullock, a senior lecturer in psycholgy at Swinburne University.
But this “does not diminish the fact people can feel depressed, sad, lethargic or a lack of energy” when skies are constantly grey.
“This [group of emotions] does seem to correlate with these periods, particularly in Melbourne with the winters we have,” he said.
“There are some people more susceptible to seasonal effects on mood biologically; some have a more sensitive system of recognising and absorbing light and the body being able to use that.”
But Bullock said a small sample of his own family on the school run on Friday offered a promise of things to come.
“Everyone was happier in the car because it was sunny. There’s this connection with sun and happiness … of enjoying the warmth,” he said.
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