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On the Sunny Side of Life: Sunshine Effects on Life Satisfaction

Abstract

This paper seeks to analyze the influence of the weather on a person’s self-reported life satisfaction. On a theoretical level, it is claimed that ‘nice’ weather can improve the affective well-being of a person. Given this, it is argued that affects can, in turn, have an impact on that person’s general assessment of his or her life. In particular, it is expected that people would report a higher life satisfaction on days with unambiguously ‘nice’ weather. Data from three German large-scale surveys are used to test empirically to what extent self-reported life satisfaction is determined by the weather. All in all, the results are mostly consistent with the initial hypothesis. In all three samples those respondents surveyed on days with exceptionally sunny weather reported a higher life satisfaction compared to respondents interviewed on days with ‘ordinary’ weather. In two out of three samples, this difference was statistically significant. Hence, the supposed sunshine effect on peoples’ life satisfaction does indeed exist. Implications of these findings are discussed in a conclusion.

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Notes

  1. Whereas personality psychologists mostly argue in favour of the first position, the second point of view was mainly investigated by scholars who represented the social cognition tradition. This latter school of thought tested, in particular, how ‘technical’ aspects of questionnaire design and of the interview situation influenced self-reported life satisfaction (item order effects, interviewer effects, etc.). These studies mostly documented consistent, but small effects on self-reports of life satisfaction (Schimmack and Oishi 2005). Furthermore, some studies investigated the relevance of mood-inducing events on peoples’ life satisfaction. The experiments by Schwartz cited at the outset of this paper are one example for this kind of research.

  2. Participants in this study were put into three test conditions groups, so that 28 respondents were questioned per test condition. It seems noteworthy, though, that weather-induced differences in life satisfaction, as reported by Schwarz and Clore, are insignificant in two of the three test conditions. Strictly speaking, the popular belief that weather can affect a persons’ life satisfaction is based only on one tiny study with solely 28 respondents.

  3. Affective well-being consists of both pleasant and unpleasant affects. Affects, in turn, consist of moods as well as emotions. Emotions differ from moods: "Because emotions arise from ongoing, implicit appraisals of situations with respect to their implications for one’s goals, they have an identifiable referent, a sharp rise time, and limited duration. These characteristics distinguish emotions from moods, which lack a clear referent, may come about gradually, may last for an extended time and are often of low intensity" (Schwarz 2011: 8).

  4. In another study, Keller et al. (2005) demonstrate that warm and sunny weather only improves a subject’s mood if this person had spent more than 30 min outdoors. Thus, the sunshine effect on mood is positive, but only for those who are directly exposed to the weather. Contradictory results are reported by Watson (2000). In his research among students from Texas and Japan, no significant correlations between weather and moods are found. Neither sunshine nor air pressure, temperature or precipitation influenced the mood of the students.

  5. Parker and Tavassoli (2000) argue that in climate zones with lower average sunshine, the level of serotonin has to be increased by other means. They can show, for example, that people consume more alcohol, coffee, chocolate and cigarettes in these regions.

  6. For a review of different approaches used to explain life satisfaction, see Diener (1984) or Diener et al. (1999).

  7. Both the “affect-priming”-hypothesis and the “mood-as-information”-hypothesis have been proven many times, for example, in the context of the evaluation of probabilities and risks. In a study by Johnson and Tversky (1983), subjects who were in a bad mood overestimated the probability of death as a result of illness or natural disaster, while respondents in neutral moods came to fairly adequate estimations (see also Mayer et al. 1992; for more recent reviews Forgas 2008; Blanchette and Richards 2010).

  8. Among others, this is a serious problem for researchers who try to simulate the development of life satisfaction under changing climatic conditions. In this regard, Frijters and Van Praag (1998: 75) note: “The problem becomes greatest when it comes to computing the effect of climate change upon well-being… Well-being is generated by the interaction of highly correlated [climate] variables, whose cause-and-result structure is unknown.”

  9. For every respondent, the Eurobarometer (EB) includes information on the federal state (Bundesland) and the GGSS on the administrative district (Regierungsbezirk). To identify the city of residence, we had to combine this data with other information on the population size of the respondent’s residence. Considering both elements in combination allowed us to identify a couple of major German cities. For example, the federal state of Hesse has only one city with more than 500,000 inhabitants: Frankfurt on the Main. Other major cities, like Berlin, Hamburg or Munich, can be identified in a similar way. As the administrative district is a more specific type of information compared to the federal state, Study 3 (based on the GGSS) includes nine German cities whereas Study 1 and 2 (based on the EB) includes only five cities.

  10. Only respondents of employable age answered the question that measures fulfillment with professional life.

  11. Possible differences between the questions and the underlying constructs are discussed more precisely in the final section of this paper.

  12. A more restrictive definition of a sunny day would have resulted in a very small number of respondents interviewed on sunny days.

  13. In addition to the weather, other situational factors can impact general life satisfaction as well. As Schwarz et al. showed, such mundane events like finding an apparently overlooked coin at the copying machine can positively influence a person’s life satisfaction. Furthermore, it is possible that other situational factors moderate the impact of weather on life satisfaction. For instance, the mood-improving effect of sunny weather could be reinforced by another mood-improving event like a meeting with a good friend or could be diminished or distorted by negative events like losing your wallet. Unfortunately, we can not control for all these mood-inducing events because there is no information about these events in our data. However, this should not be a problem for our research because of the fortuitous occurrence of such mood-inducing events. Instead, it could be assumed that the influence of these situational factors is balanced out unless they are produced systematically by the research design itself or by the interview situation. Therefore, additional controls of other situational factors would be helpful (particularly to compare the various effects), but are in no way necessary.

  14. Cautiously speaking, studies which use this particular question for measuring subjective well-being are not very numerous. Aside from the EB 67.1 wave that we analyzed here, we do not know any other study.

  15. Another explanation for a supposedly weaker or even negative effect of sunshine in summer months is given by Cohen (2011). He speculates that „the positive effects of sunlight on mood should be naturally minimal during the summer, because the length of summer days naturally offsets melatonin production, which dramatically reduces the positive effects of sunlight.” Furthermore, Cohen reasons that sunlight during the summer may have a negative effect on mood due to the hot temperatures that accompanies sunshine in summer. Very hot temperatures should reduce the affective well-being of a person. Some studies even demonstrated that irritability (Holland et al. 1985), aggression (Berkowitz 1993) and even suicides are a side-effect of hot temperatures (Barker et al. 1994; Page et al. 2007).

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Correspondence to Sylvia Kämpfer.

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Table 4 Description of variables

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Kämpfer, S., Mutz, M. On the Sunny Side of Life: Sunshine Effects on Life Satisfaction. Soc Indic Res 110, 579–595 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11205-011-9945-z

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Keywords

  • Well-being
  • Life satisfaction
  • Happiness
  • Mood
  • Weather
  • Sunshine
  • Climate conditions