Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Do Sunny Days Make You Feel Good About Life?

I have a soft spot in my heart for the song “Sunny Side of the Street,” and that song has helped me get through some tough times in my life. The lyric “Life can be so sweet/On the sunny side of the street” captures our general belief that rainy days are sad, while sunny days are happy. 

Clearly, this belief is embedded in our culture.  Not only do we get songs like “Sunny Side of the Street,” but we also have classics like “Rainy Days and Mondays (Always Get Me Down). 

There are a few studies out there that also examine the relationship between weather and measures of well-being (including mood and overall life satisfaction).  An interesting paper in the May, 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Richard Lucas and Nicole Lawless points out that there is a lot of inconsistency in the results of studies that have looked at the relationship between mood and well-being.

These researchers analyzed data from over 1 million people who rated their overall life satisfaction on a 4-point scale as part of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System that is run by the US Centers for Disease Control.  This survey included information about where the survey was filled out, and so the responses could be compared against a variety of weather variables for that location.

The researchers examined the relationship between the rating of life satisfaction and temperature, precipitation, cloud cover, barometric pressure, wind speed, and humidity.  The researchers also explored a variety of different aspects of these variables.  For example, with cloud cover, they not only look at the cloud cover that day, but also how that cloud cover deviated from the norm at that time of year as well as the difference between the cloud cover on the day of the survey from the previous day’s cloudiness.  Similar analyses were done for all of the weather variables variables.  The researchers also looked for gender differences.

These analyses allowed the researchers to explore questions like whether people are happier when the weather is much sunnier than normal for that time of year, and whether a sunny day that follows a cloudy day makes people happier. 

What do you think they found?  Take a second and make your predictions.  Which of these aspects of the weather had the biggest effect on people’s judgments of their life satisfaction?

The answer is…none of them.  The fascinating thing about these careful analyses is that no aspects of the weather had any appreciable impact on judgments of life satisfaction.  There were a couple of statistically reliable results reported in the study, but they reflected differences of about 0.02 on the measure of life satisfaction.

So, if the weather does not affect our daily judgments of life satisfaction, why do we think that the weather matters?

There are several factors at work here.

First, looking at the data, there are some broad relationships between life satisfaction and the weather.  Overall, people who live in warmer climates are more satisfied with life than people who live in colder climates.  People who live in sunnier climates are more satisfied with life than those who live in cloudier climates.  So, the overall weather in a region does seem to be related to life satisfaction.  Of course, there are many possible reasons for that.  It is easier to exercise when it is warm and sunny than when it is cold and rainy, so perhaps people who live in warm climates get more physical activity than those who live in cold climates.

Second, we often assume that specific factors will have a greater influence on our overall well-being than they actually do.  Dan Gilbert, Tim Wilson and their colleagues have explored how they would be affected by positive or negative life events.  People assumed that their life satisfaction would be changed for a long period of time by events like getting into a romantic relationship or being denied tenure.  In fact, although those factors did have a short-term influence on people’s well-being, they did not have a long-term influence on judgments of life satisfaction.  That is our overall level of life satisfaction is governed by many factors, and it is hard to predict how any factor will affect us.

Ultimately, we have to realize that the best predictor of how satisfied we are going to be with our lives tomorrow, six months from now, or next year is how satisfied we are with our lives today.