How the weather changes people’s moods
13 August 2021 | Matt Mostyn
To celebrate OVO’s sponsorship of Channel 4 Weather, we’re honouring the Great British weather’s role in powering Great British homes with regular blogs on the UK’s favourite subject!
Ever noticed how often we use weather analogies to describe our various moods? From having a sunny disposition one day, to feeling under a black cloud the next, the weather and our states of mind can seem inherently intertwined.
And just like the weather, our emotions can sometimes feel like forces of nature: changeable, unpredictable, and impossible to control! But does the weather actually influence our emotions to a large degree?
Yes it can, is the short answer! Whether the weather’s serving up searing heat or icy cold, blazing sun or lashing rain, learn how and why different conditions can affect the way we feel, and impact our lives.
Rain, rain, go away...
Here in the UK, we’re well used to the rain, right? And there’s little doubt that when it’s lashing hard against the windows, it rarely puts us in a good mood. The Carpenters had it about right when they sang, “rainy days and Mondays always get me down.”
When it’s miserable and wet out there, it can certainly cause us to feel more depressed. One major reason for that is because rainy days affect our social lives. We’re just less inclined to want to go out – and that can lead us to feel more isolated, frustrated and downbeat.
A study of face-to-face socialising on more than 11,000 adults1 found that people who met up with friends and family 3 times a week showed the lowest rate of depression after 2 years. Only 6.5% developed the condition, compared to those who met up once a month – whose depression rates nearly doubled. Because consistent rain makes us more inclined to cancel plans, it can definitely lead to a less fulfilled social life – which in turn lowers our mood.
And another thing! Getting caught in a downpour can trigger a cold or flu, and make us feel unwell – and that could also cause our mood to drop. An experiment carried out by researchers at the University of Freiburg found that mice injected with a virus similar to flu showed signs of despair, lethargy and sadness while they fought off infection2.
According to the researchers, this is because our bodies react to infections by releasing a protein that interferes with our hippocampus, the region of our brains that controls mood.
And finally, rainy mornings can also mean chaos on the roads, and extra hassle if you have to go out – and these kinds of delays can cause a spike in feelings of anger and frustration. There’s no doubt about it – leaden skies are a heavy burden for many of us.
Giant hailstones… white rainbows… lightning sprites… check out our blog about the 20 strangest weather events in the world.
Walking on sunshine
On the other hand, it’s no surprise that those bright, cloudless days can make us feel like we’re on top of the world. Sunlight has repeatedly been found to boost positivity, dampen negative moods and make us feel more awake and alive3. That’s because it increases the brain’s release of a hormone called serotonin – which boosts our mood, and helps us feel calmer and more focused.
One recent study found that on really sunny days, people experienced higher life satisfaction than on days with “ordinary” weather4. While these feelings appear to vary from day to day, it backs the theory that sunny weather affects our overall mood for the better.
The Vitamin D effect
Sunshine also plays a key role in delivering Vitamin D5 – often nicknamed “the sunshine vitamin”. A Vitamin D deficiency is linked to an increased risk for depression. And because only a handful of foods contain traces of this essential vitamin, the best way to get enough of the stuff is through exposure to sunlight.
Research on the subject by Canadian researchers found a strong link between depression and a lack of vitamin D. The lower the vitamin D level, the greater the chance of a person having depression. And while getting more D isn't likely to resolve more serious depression on its own, it could well help improve your mood. So there’s another reason to get outside and feel some sun on your skin, when the weather permits!
Out in the cold
When it’s colder out, it’s tempting to stay indoors more, and exercise less. In cold weather, our bodies are forced to work harder to keep us warm. That takes energy – which makes us feel more lethargic, and less sociable. And on top of that, chronic health conditions and general aches and pains are more likely to flare up in winter weather. None of which is great for a good mood.
But there’s another mood-altering effect of those cold, dark, gloomy winters, and it’s called SAD – or Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Winter Seasonal Affective Disorder
According to research, 6% of UK adults have Seasonal Affective Disorder6 – though that number could be much higher, since many go undiagnosed. SAD is a type of depression that comes and goes with the seasons.
It usually starts in the autumn, as the days shorten and the longer, darker nights creep in. Symptoms typically include depressed mood, sleeping too much, fatigue, lethargy, and increased appetite, especially for sugar and carbs.
As you’d expect, winter SAD is more likely to affect people in northern latitudes, where days are shorter and temperatures are colder. It’s thought that it’s caused by a disruption to your circadian rhythms – the 24-hour cycles that are part of the body’s internal clock.
We need light to wake us up and start the hormonal functions that keep us on a regular wake/sleep cycle. But they can get disrupted when we wake up in the dark, spend the whole day inside, and then go home in the dark during those winter months. It’s official. Short, cold, dark winter days really can make us SAD.
The heat is on
When summer eventually bursts forth, you’d be forgiven for thinking we’re all walking around in a permanent state of bliss. But while some of us may like it hot, a heatwave can actually have quite a mixed influence when it comes to our moods.
When the thermometer rises, we tend to spend more time outdoors doing sports, exercise, or outdoor hobbies like gardening. When this happens, most of us of course feel more buoyant and optimistic.
But… extreme summer heat can also have a demotivating effect. Humid conditions can be pretty uncomfortable – which means we spend more time indoors panting under a fan, or skulking around with the curtains closed.
The 20-degree sweet spot
Humidity tends to make people more tired and irritable – and that’s led scientists to conclude that there’s an ideal temperature for good moods.
A recent study published in Nature Human Behaviour found that there’s a temperature sweet spot of about 20°C7 – which it calls a “psycho-physiological comfort optimum”. That basically means we function best when it’s not too hot, and not too cold. The more the temperature departs from that, the more uncomfortable we feel. And that can lead to even more drastic mood changes for some of us…
The social impacts of heat and humidity
Hot weather can make some of us more anxious, irritable, and even violent – and the higher the temperature, the more people are likely to act aggressively. Violent crime rates go up in summer months – and while some say that’s because the days are longer, and we spend more time outdoors in contact with others, extreme heat can also play a role.
Hot weather can make us more stressed, as well as increasing both breathing and our heart rate, mimicking anxiety. And because we tend not to sleep so well in hot weather, that can also lead to a shorter-than-normal fuse. That explains why rates of everything from car-horn honking, to riots, and even murders rise in hot weather8.
Whatever it’s doing out there, the fact is, some of us are just more sensitive to the weather than others. The important thing is to be aware of the weather that most changes your own mood, and find effective ways to cope. As the saying goes, you can’t control the wind, but you can adjust your sails!
The effects of severe weather and climate change
There’s a troubling final word to say about the effects of more extreme weather on not only our moods, but also our very survival itself.
Normal daily changes in weather have a mild effect on our mood and mental health. But the effects of extreme weather like hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, droughts, and heatwaves are a lot more serious.
As well as causing great stress and anxiety for anyone in the midst of them, the after-effects can be devastating. And while it’s true that severe weather can cause people to pull together and help out friends and neighbours, these situations can trigger anxiety, panic, and depression. They may also cause PTSD – sometimes for years afterwards9.
As our climate changes, it’s more likely that more of these extreme weather events will have a greater impact on more people. The effects of climate change on mental health are currently under great scrutiny – and all kinds of research suggests that worry over climate change may lead to mental health challenges like anxiety, guilt, and grief10. But there are ways to fight back:
- First up, learn more about eco-anxiety and what to do about it, in our guide to climate change and mental health
- Read even more about our changing climate, and some action you can take, with our blog on the causes, effects and possible solutions to climate change
- We’ve also got some top tips to help you explain climate change to kids
- And see our recommendations for 10 of the best documentaries on climate change, to learn more about how to fight it
Switch to OVO, for power made by weather
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Sources and references
11100% of the renewable electricity we sell is backed by renewable certificates (Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates (REGOs)). See here for details on Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates and how these work. A proportion of the electricity we sell is also purchased directly from renewable generators in the UK.
12 Each year, OVO plants 1 tree for every member in partnership with the Woodland Trust. Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so tree-planting helps to slow down climate change.