Minding the Body

The guide to health and happiness

How Admiring the Sunset Changes You for the Better

Appreciating a beautiful sunset enriches your life beyond the moment.

man silhouetted against sunset
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A glorious sunset is the epitome of fleeting beauty. For a few minutes, the sky is a spectacle of color — and then it’s over. Yet the psychological effects of admiring the sunset may persist long after the color has faded.

Studies show that appreciating natural beauty may boost well-being, increase generosity and enhance life satisfaction. The key is to actively engage with the experience. To reap the rewards of that sunset, you need to stop whatever else you’re doing and really notice and appreciate the show in the sky.

3 Benefits of Sunset Gazing

Allowing yourself to be captivated by a sunset may have a number of psychological benefits.

  • Emotional well-being. In general, people who feel connected with nature report being happier and having more positive emotions than those who don’t share this connection. Yet it’s clear that some people get more joy from an hour in the park than others.
    A recent study led by Jia Wei Zhang at the University of California, Berkeley, helps explain why: Researchers found that connectedness with nature only predicted well-being in people who were attuned to the beauty of nature. Need to tune up your awareness of natural beauty? It’s hard to beat simply sitting outside and soaking up a stunning sunset.
  • Concern for others. Another study by Zhang found that the positive emotions aroused by natural beauty led to increased prosociality — feelings and behaviors characterized by concern for others. In one experiment, volunteers first looked at pictures of nature scenes and then played a game, which allowed them to be generous or stingy about giving away points to other players. The nature images had been pre-rated to determine how beautiful people thought they were. Volunteers who viewed beautiful nature images gave away more points, compared to those who viewed less attractive pictures.
    In short, it wasn’t just looking at nature that put people in a generous mood. It was perceiving the beauty of nature — and a sunset is a prime example of that.
  • Satisfaction with life. Beauty enriches life, making it more rewarding. One study found that greater engagement with beauty was associated with higher levels of life satisfaction, gratitude and a spiritual outlook. The association was strongest for engagement with natural beauty, as compared to artistic beauty (such as a painting, symphony or poem) or moral beauty (such as an act of charity, loyalty or kindness).
    One theory is that appreciation for the beauty of nature is so powerful because it’s instinctual rather than learned. There’s a natural tendency to stop and stare at a breathtaking sunset. When you do so, you’re likely to be caught up in the moment, and your mind gets a break from fretting over the past or worrying about the future. Afterward, you feel refreshed, and life just seems a little better.

Right Off Into the Sunset

Some people find it easy to lose themselves in an awe-inspiring sunset. For others, slowing down to appreciate such a quiet experience doesn’t come as readily. The instinct to stop and stare may have been overridden long ago by the learned imperative to hurry up and get things done.

Yet when you slow down to enjoy a sunset, you are accomplishing some very important things. If your sunset-gazing skills are rusty, try these tips:

  • Grab a camera or sketchpad. For this purpose, the goal is to really see the sunset and capture the moment-to-moment experience, not create an artistic image.
  • Make it a meditation. Take several slow, deep breaths to relax your body and calm your mind. Then intentionally focus on the sunset, noticing how the colors and light change as the sunset first builds in intensity and then fades.
  • Listen to music that thrills you. If you’re more attuned to sound than sight, use music to put yourself into a receptive state of mind.

Linda Wasmer Andrews writes frequently about the mental and physical health benefits of engaging with nature. Most recently, she blogged about how feeling connected to nature may promote innovative thinking. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a health writer with a master's degree in health psychology.

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