After a predictably cold and snowy Midwestern winter, there are few days more worth celebrating than the first sunny day of the year. For University of Wisconsin-Madison students especially, the sun emerges as a sign that the end of the semester is near, and with it, brings the promise of afternoons spent with friends at the Memorial Union Terrace, study sessions on picnic blankets on Bascom Hill and long walks along the Lakeshore path.
If you’ve noticed that your mood is boosted by sunny days spent outdoors, you’re not alone. An estimated 10 million Americans struggle with seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This mood disorder, commonly referred to as the “winter blues,” is characterized by feelings of sluggishness, apathy and other general symptoms of depression during the winter months. Even for those who do not experience symptoms to this severity, exposure to sunlight is correlated with higher levels of happiness.
This has been confirmed in studies such as one conducted by psychologist Mark E. Beecher at Brigham Young University. Over a six year period, Beecher analyzed the level of distress of approximately 16,500 adults across 19 different weather and pollution variables. While temperature and pollution variables had no statistically significant impact on participants’ emotional stress, the study found that exposure to sunlight was correlated with marked decreases in anxiety and other negative emotions.
What is it about the sun, though, that makes us happier? The answer is found in sunlight’s role regarding our secretion of two hormones: melatonin, the “hormone of darkness,” and serotonin, which produces feelings of happiness and contentment. When it gets dark, our body initiates the production of melatonin to increase drowsiness and ultimately, to encourage us to sleep.
During the winter months, however, when the sun begins setting as early as 4:30 p.m., our body begins producing melatonin much earlier than is needed. This results in higher levels of melatonin that intensify feelings of tiredness. As people living in colder climates experience decreased energy throughout their daily lives, new or increased anxiety, apathy and other depressive symptoms can become common for those afflicted with SAD.
As the days (finally) become longer during the spring and summer months, the sun plays a vital role in shutting off melatonin production in favor of producing serotonin. The more sunlight we are exposed to, the more serotonin our body produces, thus intensifying the emotional returns of one of our “happiness hormones.”
While spring and early summer mark a busy time for most college students, this highlights the importance of ensuring that the looming stress of finals season does not overtake our ability to spend quality time outdoors. Whether enjoying food outside with friends or even taking a quick walk around the block, dedicating study breaks to soak up some UV rays might just be your key to staying sane during the final stretch of the semester. And with the great outdoors serving as one of the most natural (and free!) mood boosters available, there is little reason why any of us shouldn’t be scheduling some time to soak in the summer sun — just make sure to bring some SPF.