Is the Sun More Fun in Egypt or Finland?

Feelings associated with the color yellow are related to a nation’s climate.

Posted Jan 12, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan

Rooms with pink walls are said to inhibit aggressiveness. The color green is thought to alleviate stress in hospital environments. Can specific hues produce specific emotional states? More generally, are particular colors associated with particular emotions? What is the color of sadness? The color of anger? The color of love?

In a post last year that generated many comments, I described a study conducted by two research psychologists at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. In that study, Domicele Jonauskaite and Christine Mohr examined color-emotion pairings in 30 nations. They discovered that 14 pairings were commonly reported almost everywhere (Jonauskaite et al., 2020). Black was associated with sadness in almost all countries. The same was true for red and love. Other common associations were red with anger and yellow with joy.

Intrigued by the yellow-joy pairing, Jonauskaite and Mohr conducted a separate study that examined the impact of climate and geography on the degree to which people associate yellow with a feeling of joy (Jonauskaite et al., 2019). They recruited 6,625 participants living in 55 countries on six continents. Participants’ ages ranged from 16 to 87, with an average age of 34.  About 75% of the participants were female.

The study participants used a measuring device called the Geneva Emotion Wheel, which is available in 40 different languages, to indicate the degree to which they associate a feeling of joy with the color yellow. They reported the intensity of their association on a 6-point scale that ranged from 0 (no association at all) to 5 (a strong link between yellow and joy).

Jonauskaite and Mohr also collected three climate-related pieces of information about each of the 55 countries represented in the study. To measure sunshine, they calculated the proportion of daylight hours (over the past few years) that were sunny. To measure latitude, they calculated the distance from the equator to the country’s geographic center. (Did you know that the geographic center of the 48 contiguous United States is near the town of Lebanon, Kansas?) To measure precipitation, they recorded the country’s annual rainfall (in millimeters) across several years.

The researchers discovered that about half (48%) of the participants in their study associated yellow with joy. More importantly, they observed that different nations had hugely different rates. In Egypt, only 6% of participants associated yellow with joy. In Finland, a whopping 88% of participants associated yellow with joy!

When Jonauskaite and Mohr analyzed the three climate factors, they discovered that participants rated yellow as more joyful if they lived in a rainy country further from the equator. Participants rated yellow as less joyful or not joyful at all if they lived in a sunny country closer to the equator. 

Specifically, people living in North Africa (Algeria and Egypt) and the Middle East (Saudi Arabia and Iran) were unlikely to associate yellow with joy. These people live in relatively dry countries that have many sunny days. In contrast, people living in Nordic European countries (Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) were very likely to associate yellow with joy. These people live in relatively wet countries that have many cloudy days. To them, the yellow sun is a joyful, precious commodity.

To be sure, there were exceptions to the overall pattern. Australia is a dry, sun-drenched country (a sunburnt country, say many Aussies) located near the equator, yet almost two-thirds of Australians in the study said they associate yellow with a feeling of joy. (Most Australians live near the coast. Perhaps they associate the sun with swimming, surfing, and beach volleyball.)

Most researchers who investigate color-emotion associations attribute specific pairings to cultural and linguistic factors. Jonauskaite and Mohr’s findings suggest that climate and geography may also play a role. If that’s the case, what is the exact mechanism by which climate and geography exert their influence?

In their article in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, Jonauskaite and Mohr discuss several possibilities. Perhaps the sun’s yellow color is associated with feelings of joy because sunlight warms the skin, makes colors more vibrant, and turns seeds into flowers. Maybe yellow is the color of joy because people often do joyful things (like play games and have picnics) when they are outdoors on a sunny day.

These mechanisms may operate everywhere, but they are probably more salient (more noticeable and important) in places that are often cloudy and cold. In these places—Northern Europe, for instance—“the sun is fun” because people make an effort to do fun things when the sun is shining, which isn’t often.

In places that are usually hot and dry, like North Africa and the Middle East, the sun is less fun. I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley of California, surrounded by mile after mile of flat, semi-arid desert. Summers were hot, sunny, and dry. My family couldn't afford air conditioning. If someone had asked me to name the color of joy, I would have said blue, the color of swimming pools.

References

Jonauskaite, D., Abdel-Khalek, A. M., Abu-Akel, A., Al-Rasheed, A. S., Antonietti, J. P., Ásgeirsson, Á. G., ... & Mohr, C. (2019). The sun is no fun without rain: Physical environments affect how we feel about yellow across 55 countries. Journal of Environmental Psychology66, 101350.

Jonauskaite, D., and 35 others. (2020). Universal patterns in color-emotion associations are further shaped by linguistic and geographic proximity. Psychological Science, 31, 1245-1260.