Sunlight and Its Connection to Mood

May 5, 2020

Spring has sprung! Blue skies and blossoming trees are everywhere! And thank goodness, because one more week of that rainy, dismal weather we had at the beginning of quarantine and I might have lost my mind. It’s funny how everyone seems happier when the sun shows its face, even when people are confined to their houses. But why does sunlight – or lack thereof have such a big impact on our mood? It may not be that everything simply looks prettier; it’s likely due to the hormones in the human body. 

When the sun shines, not only are we getting larger quantities of vitamin D in our systems, but we also experience a boost in a hormone called serotonin, which is produced when sunlight hits certain areas in the retina of our eye. These “happy hormones” cause a person to feel joy and serenity. Unlike dopamine, the hormone that triggers pleasure from accomplishing goals in the “reward pathway” of our brains, or endorphins, which blunt our perception of pain during exertion (such as exercise), serotonin is associated with self-satisfaction and gratitude for the little things in life (which, let’s be honest, we could all use right about now). 

When the sun sets and nighttime comes, our bodies produce melatonin, a hormone that causes us to get sleepy. This is useful after a long day when we want to get some shut-eye, but it’s kind of a nuisance during the winter, when the sun is hidden for long periods of time and we feel tired (or even depressed) all. Day. Long. There’s even a name for a severe case of the winter blues: SAD, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. It’s a type of depression that affects about 10 million Americans and is 4 times more common in women than men (Sorry, ladies). Who knew that the absence of the sun could tale such a huge toll on our emotions? 

While we are quick to blame our sudden downward shifts in mood on the weather, there is another factor that is likely contributing to our collective sadness: isolation. It’s no secret that we are mostly social beings, and being confined to four walls for five weeks and seeing the same 3 or 4 people 24/7 can’t have had a positive influence on our well-being. Luckily, there are ways in which we can (and have) been boosting our serotonin levels. Going outside for a walk is the simplest and most effective way to stimulate all 3 of those hormones I mentioned earlier (and you’ll get a reprive from sitting at a desk all day.) Try writing down the things you’re grateful for; it could be as simple as your morning cup of coffee, your favorite snack, or reading CCES News! recommends thinking about a happy moment in your past. You might be thinking, “But how is that going to help? That was a long time ago; how is it going to make me happy now?” Here’s how: The brain can’t distinguish between past and present happy moments, so serotonin will increase regardless. 

Yes, quarantine has been hard. Not seeing people and having to stay inside isn’t ideal in the slightest. But, the weather has warmed up, and there are ways we can control how we feel on a day-to-day basis. Stay positive everyone; nothing lasts forever,  and we’ll be back again before we know it. 

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