This time of year seems to bring out our loosey-goosey side. Polish people have a spring tradition of dousing each other with water and chasing each other around with Pussywillow switches. South Asians pelt each other with colored powered as a celebration of the triumph of good over evil. And then there’s Mardi Gras – ‘nuff said. We tend to go a little wild.
This kind of behavior can be cathartic after a winter’s worth of suffering, but there’s evidence that it might be good for you, too.
It’s a given that cold weather can dampen spirits. Depression that returns during the winter months each year—seasonal affective disorder—goes by the extremely apt acronym “SAD.”
Warm weather doesn’t really have the opposite effect, though. A number of studies, including one based on 20,818 observations in Dallas, Texas, found that there was no significant correlation between mood and temperature.
So, if it’s not just the warmer weather that affects us, then what is it?
In a study published in 2005 by Psychological Science, researchers put volunteers through a series of tests to gauge how the weather and the amount of time they spent outside affected their mood, their memory, and how receptive they were to new information.
In the first test, researchers measured the temperature and barometric pressure (high pressure is typically associated with clear, sunny weather) on several days when 97 people reported their mood and how much time they spent outside. Then, the participants were asked to remember a series of numbers. They were also given a short, favorable description of a fake employee, and then given additional, unfavorable information about that same person, and then asked to assess the employee’s competence and performance. The more open-minded among them, the researchers thought, would be able to update their initial impressions with the new information before passing judgment.
All three metrics hinged on the weather and how much time the participants had spent outside. On days with high pressure—the clear, sunny ones—people who spent more than 30 minutes outside saw an increase in memory, mood, and flexible thinking styles. Those who spent the time indoors, though, saw a decrease.
In a second experiment, the researchers asked 121 subjects to either spend time inside or outside on a warm, clear day. Among participants who spent more than 30 minutes outside, higher temperature and pressure were associated with higher moods, but among those who spent 30 minutes or less outside, this relationship was reversed.
A third test was done to determine whether the first two tests were tainted by the fact that they took place in the spring in a northern climate. Data was collected through a website from 387 respondents who lived in various climates, and they correlated the submissions with the weather in each city for that day. They found that the participants who spent more time outside during the spring, but not during other seasons, had better moods.
Temperature changes toward cooler weather in the fall did not predict higher mood. Rather, there appears to be something uniquely uplifting about warm days in the spring.
In summary, across the studies, spending more time outside on clear, sunny days, particularly in the spring, was found to increase mood, memory, and openness to new ideas. People who spent their time indoors, though, had the opposite effect, and one possible explanation for this result is that people consciously resent being cooped up indoors when the weather is pleasant in the spring.
People in industrialized nations spend 93 percent of their time inside, but researchers suggest that if you wish to reap the psychological benefits of good springtime weather, go outside!
This just might be the perfect time of year to turn off your computer and lay a Post-it note on your desk (with a copy of this article) that says “OUT OF OFFICE”. Catch an afternoon ballgame, go fishing or just frolic around a park. You’ll feel better, smarter and become more open-minded. If your boss asks ‘what’s up?’ – just say “I’m brain training!”