Moody weather

Well, it’s official: October was one of the wettest, coldest and dreariest on record. Maybe that explains why so many people lately have seemed glum and low on energy – or does it? And we all feel better today because it’s finally sunny, right?

Weather does appear to have some effect on people’s moods. But it may not exert as much influence as we think, according to the PsyBlog psychology blog.

Various studies have tried to track this, and mostly what they’ve found is a small impact. An Internet survey conducted among 1,200 people in Germany asked the participants to chart their positive and negative emotions each day for a month. The answers then were matched with weather data that included sunlight, temperature and wind.

The results: Sunny, warm weather didn’t necessarily make people feel happier. Although the survey participants reported feeling slightly more tired on gray days, the effect was not great, the study’s authors reported.

Two earlier studies, conducted among Americans, came up with similar findings.

“So how come many of us are convinced the weather affects mood?” PsyBlog wonders.

Denissen et al. (2008) suggest that we may be responding to a culturally transmitted idea that weather affects mood. Effectively we think the weather has significant effects on our mood because everyone else thinks and says it does.

People who have seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, can truly experience mood disorders that are associated with the weather, PsyBlog writes. “But for the vast majority of us, there is no effect.”

But wait, there’s another way to look at this. The difference might be the amount of time we spend outdoors, a University of Michigan study suggests. The researchers assigned people to spend time outdoors during the spring. They found that when people were randomly assigned to be outdoors on warm sunny days, their mood and memory were better than those who were outdoors when the weather was not pleasant or those who spent the sunny days inside.

Additional findings from this study: The optimal temperature for most Americans is 72 degrees. People’s moods may worsen if temperatures become significantly higher or lower than this.

For pleasant weather to improve mood, the researchers found, “subjects needed to spend at least 30 minutes outside in warm, sunny weather.”

So what about severe weather? Extremes such as droughts, floods and hurricanes can have a significant effect on mental health. The Boston Globe took a look at this issue earlier this year as part of a bigger look at climate change, and found that extreme weather events can lead to emotional distress and trigger depression or post-traumatic stress. The Globe reported:

After Hurricane Katrina, rates of severe mental illness – including depression, PTSD, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and a variety of phobias – doubled, from 6.1 percent to 11.3 percent, among those who lived in affected regions, a 2006 study by the Hurricane Katrina Advisory Group said.

Rates of mild-to-moderate mental illness also doubled, from 9.7 percent to 19.9 percent.

Researchers also are starting to study the potential effect of global climate change on the psyche, the Globe reported. There’s speculation that a gradual environmental shift could greatly alter patterns of farming, hunting and fishing, leading to noticeable change in how people conduct their daily lives and how they relate to the natural environment. So even if the day-to-day patterns don’t significantly affect our psychological ups and downs, and even when all the study findings and data are often contradictory, it seems we’re still intricately connected to the weather.

HealthBeat photo by Anne Polta