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Lighten Up: The Science of How Sunshine Makes You Happy

By Kate Duncan

How many times have you heard the saying, “Lighten up," yet have you ever truly stopped to consider why we associate light with happiness? The science is well and truly out on the connection between sun and joy. It’s not just a myth anymore it’s a fact…

 

…Sunshine makes you happy.

 

I learned this connection through my personal experience as a shift worker. For many years, I was a firefighter paramedic in California, and we worked for 48 hours at a time. We lived in a fire station while we were on shift and responded to calls throughout the night. Our nights were only half as busy as our days, so we often had time to sleep and rest.

 

There were nights where we didn’t sleep much at all, but we still got up at 6am the next morning and started the day. Often, this meant that we were sleep deprived (which has its own complications) but we never slept during the day and missed out on the sun. 

 

Later, when I moved back to Australia to become an Intensive Care Paramedic I started working shifts. We would work two 12 hour day shifts, and then two 12 hour night shifts and our nights were just as busy as our days, so there was no possibility of rest.

 

This meant I had to sleep in the day, and after a few months of doing this, I noticed a massive shift in my level of lightness. If I picked up extra shifts and worked a few nights in a row I would actually struggle to feel joy at all. Sleeping during the day makes me feel physically and emotionally off, and I began to do some research on shift work depression, and SAD (seasonal affective disorder).

 

In this post, we’ll explore some of what I learned. We’ll talk about the science behind why, and how, sunshine can lighten you up, and craft up some ways to get your daily dose of sun-induced joy, even when it’s winter!

 

How Sunshine makes you happy 

 

There are two ways that sunshine increases your overall level of lightness. The first is how your body regulates two important hormones in response to its perception of light.

 

Melatonin and Serotonin

 

Melatonin is a hormone that controls sleep, and serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is tied to states of wakefulness and being in a "good mood."

 

Under normal circumstances, the body does the following

 

Night: melatonin production increases, and serotonin decreases

Day: serotonin increases, and melatonin decreases

 

The overall effect is "downtime" at night and "uptime" during the day.

 

Here’s what is happening: if we lived in darkness our body would keep creating melatonin, and it is the sun’s rays that stop this production. When sunlight enters the eyes and hits the optic nerve, a message is sent to a gland in the brain to signal a decrease in the production of Melatonin.

 

At the same time, when the body perceives sunlight, serotonin levels increase. And the more sunlight the human body is exposed to, the more serotonin the brain produces [source: ScienceBlog]. 

 

Many anti-depressants aim to increase serotonin in the body. There is a class of antidepressants called SSRIs, which keep higher levels of serotonin in the bloodstream to help elevate mood.

So, when we spend more time in the sun, we get more of that feel-good chemical running through our bloodstream and physically feel the effects of a good mood.

 

Of course, there is a limit here, as obviously, we need a good night’s sleep too. The melatonin serotonin cycle is one of balance, and getting a good dose of both is vital to our wellbeing.

 

It is important to understand then, that we have to shut off at night too. The light from computers and phones can trick the optic nerve into sending the same message to your brain to decrease the levels of melatonin production. This is why many people struggle to fall asleep if they spend a substantial amount of time on their devices before bed.

 

The cycle of day and night, and their corresponding chemical make up, is known as the circadian rhythm. This cycle is what gets disrupted in shift workers, and caused the symptoms I felt as a paramedic.

 

In long winters, the reduction of serotonin in the body, as well as the reduction of another well-known vitamin, is what leads to Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD…

 

Vitamin D

 

The second way that sunlight makes us happy is not related to the circadian rhythm, but rather is dependant on the level of exposure to ultraviolet rays, which contain Vitamin D.

 

The body creates vitamin D when the sun's UV rays hit the skin. High levels of vitamin D are needed to help the body maintain high levels of serotonin, which help us maintain the delicate balance we talked about above.

 

Without Vitamin D, we wouldn’t be able to secrete the levels of serotonin needed to feel truly joyful. And it’s important to note that it’s UV rays themselves that contain Vitamin D. So there have to be periods of your day when you are not covered in sunscreen or clothes. 

 

Luckily, you don’t need all that much exposure to get what you need. The recommendation is to aim for about 15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure three times a week. Easy, right?

 

In summer, yes, but many people struggle to get outside in winter. Here are my best tips for getting your exposure in the darker colder months.

 

 

Maximising Sun Exposure

 

  • For the winter months, set up an area in your yard that is in direct sun, but out of the wind. In every place I’ve lived, there’s always been that one spot. My last house was in the rainforest, and during the solstice, we only got two hours of sun per day. I put my hanging egg chair right against the wall, where the sun beamed down but I was sheltered from the wind. I’d schedule my day around sitting there from 11-1, where I’d often actually get hot! It might take a bit of hunting, but it’ll be worth it.

 

  • Find a sunny cafe. When you’re meeting up with friends or getting out of the office for lunch, pick a place with bright outdoor tables or big sunny windows. Pick the warmest brightest table and let yourself soak up the rays!

 

  • Open all the blinds in your house, every day. Make it a habit to open them first thing, even if you’re leaving the house for the day. It will fill your space with enough rays to change the whole mood of your home.
  • Go for walks, even when it’s freezing. There’s really no sense in staying inside. Grab a warm jacket, some boots and get out there in the cold. There’s nothing quite like a winter stroll on the beach, especially when they’re peaceful and empty. Let the sun shine on your face, your hands, and even your feet. If you wear a warm puffy vest, you might even be able to roll up your sleeves!

 

  • Go camping at least once or twice in winter. For more info, check out my Camping Hacks For Winter blog post last month. (link to blog)

 

Getting your adequate dose of sunshine really does make a difference to your overall sense of wellbeing. So next time you’re feeling a wee bit sad, check in on the last time you made it outside. If it’s been a while, pick a sunny spot, skip the sunscreen and go feel a billion times better.

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