The Mysterious Power of the Weather

The sun affects how we function — and in ways we don't even realize

Posted Mar 09, 2015

Alena Ozerova / Shutterstock
Source: Alena Ozerova / Shutterstock

“No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn," according to journalist and author Hal Borland.

Sometimes it seems like winter will never end — many in the northeastern United States were pushed to their limits this year. But at last, we are on the cusp of spring, with warmer and sunnier days ahead. And with daylight saving time, we are once again reminded of the potential tolls that setting our clocks one hour ahead takes on our bodies. Yet the change in season also wields a kind of psychological influence on our emotions and behavior — and without our even being aware of it. Here are three ways that sunshine exerts a curious influence on how we function:

People are more helpful. Studies have found that when the sun is shining, people are more willing to lend a helping hand. Take a study out of France that looked at the effects of sunshine on drivers' willingness to give hitchhikers a lift. Four undercover researchers posed as hitchhikers in France, on both sunny and cloudy days. The researchers analyzed a whopping 2,864 of instances of these “hitchhikers” trying to get a ride. What did they find? Drivers picked up hitchhikers more on sunny days than on cloudy days. The investigators suggest that as sunshine makes our moods more positive, it also encourages us to be more helpful.

People are more open to romantic possibilities. There may be some science behind the phenomenon of “spring flings” after all. Consider another study out of France, in which an attractive male undercover researcher approached unwitting women walking alone and asked them for their phone numbers, on days that were either sunny or cloudy. The results revealed that the women gave the man their number more often on sunny days. For this we can perhaps thank, once more, the positive mood that is brought on by the sun, the researchers say.

People spend more money. When the sun is out, people want to shop. This was the finding of a three-part study. In the first study, the investigators analyzed sales figures from a retail store that sold tea and tea-related products. They had data across six years of daily sales and daily weather conditions. In the second study, the researchers had participants complete a daily survey, which assessed their mood, how much tea and coffee they bought and consumed, and their total expenses for the day. Participants recorded this information for 20 days in March. The third study manipulated participants’ exposure to artificial sunlight, assessed their mood, and questioned their willingness to pay for five products: green tea, juice, a gym membership, an airline ticket, and a newspaper subscription.

Across this series of studies, the researchers found that sunlight is associated with higher levels of spending. Again, the investigators suggest that the sun makes us feel more positive and in turn, according to these findings, shop more.

You can find Dr. Mehta's other Psychology Today posts here. Connect with Dr. Mehta on the web at: drvinitamehta.com and on twitter and Pinterest!

Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Washington, D.C., and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. Dr. Mehta provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse. She is also the author of the forthcoming book, Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.

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