Summer Soothes Our Senses—and Our Souls
There are reasons why we feel happier and healthier in the summer: Sunshine and warm weather literally change our bodies and brains.
This summer is going to look different from last year, mostly in a good way. We’re ready to spend a little extra time outside, see friends and family, and indulge in honest-to-goodness fun (remember that?). Your guide to a healthy, happy summer starts here.
Every year when summer rolls around, it can feel as if a tangible weight has lifted off our collective shoulders. Like an ice cream cone on a hot summer day, all our worries seem to melt away when the sun beats down upon our bare shoulders. Plus, everything seems to slow down—we finally take that much-needed vacation, “Summer Fridays” shorten our work weeks, and even getting dressed in the morning is easier and breezier—fewer layers, less bother.
But what makes warmer temps, longer days, and greener grass so very good for us? Turns out, there are some real, scientific reasons why we feel better, mentally and physically, during the summer months: There’s an undeniable connection between weather and mood. “Warmer months do tend to have an impact on our overall happiness and well-being,” says Helene D. Moore, Psy.D., a psychiatrist at the Northwestern Medicine Osher Center for Integrative Medicine in Chicago.
We can attribute our improved mood partly to the indirect benefits that come with the warmer months, Moore explains. For example, we tend to engage in more health- and mood-boosting activities when it’s nice out (more on that later). And, sunshine actually has a direct impact on the chemicals that are swirling around in the brain that makes us feel good, says Roseann Capanna-Hodge, Ed.D., an integrative and pediatric mental health expert in Ridgefield, CT.
Let’s get into what, exactly, it is about those summer days that makes us feel lighter and brighter. Because the power of sunshine is very real.
How Sunlight Changes Your Brain
Light literally changes our brains on a physiological level. “Sunlight affects the brain chemistry that is linked to both mood and sleep,” Moore explains. Exposure to light regulates the sleep hormone melatonin, which helps keep the sleep-wake cycle normal and improves the odds of logging quality shut-eye. It also helps produce serotonin, a brain chemical that regulates mood and makes us feel good. Conversely, the brain also naturally converts serotonin into melatonin, Moore notes. And as we all know, better sleep equals better mood.
Sunshine’s impact on serotonin and melatonin regulation also explains why many people feel down and depressed in the winter. Seasonal affective disorder, more commonly referred to as SAD, is a type of seasonal depression that many people experience when the days are shorter in the fall and winter. Some people experience symptoms of major depression in the winter, while others experience SAD-specific symptoms like oversleeping, social withdrawal, and overeating.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, experts don’t fully understand the causes of SAD, but research suggests that people with this condition have reduced levels of serotonin and increased levels of melatonin, which make it difficult to adjust to seasonal changes in daylight. Vitamin D deficiency may also play a role (more on that, below).
So it makes sense that many people with SAD improve when the days get longer. “Warmer months and the increase in daylight strongly influences those who suffer from SAD,” Moore says. “Usually with the arrival of spring, we start seeing depressive symptoms remit, and that’s when we start getting more daylight.”
The Sunshine Vitamin
On top of serotonin and melatonin regulation, the sun also triggers the production of vitamin D in our bodies, a hormone that plays a lot of important roles, including helping us absorb calcium and build strong bones, stimulating insulin production, and supporting both the cardiovascular and immune systems. For that reason, getting adequate vitamin D is key to helping us function at our best. As Capanna-Hodge puts it: “Vitamin D just makes the brain and body work better.”
“Vitamin D definitely plays a role in warding off depression and easing anxiety,” Moore explains. Most people are deficient in vitamin D, especially throughout winter months. The thing is, we can’t realistically get enough from food sources—but our bodies do a pretty great job of making vitamin D when sunlight hits our skin.
When we’re spending more time outside in the sun in summer months, we have a chance to get plenty. That’s great news for our physical and mental health.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, vitamin D is believed to promote serotonin activity, and vitamin D supplementation is sometimes used to treat SAD (though research is mixed on whether it helps more than just using light therapy).
The Indirect Health Benefits of Warm Weather
Blame it on the school’s-out attitude of our youth or the extra daylight hours, but there’s something about summer that motivates us to engage in good-for-us activities. Thanks to that sun-induced mood boost (and our general tendency to avoid subjecting ourselves to extreme cold if we don’t have to) we’re all more willing to do certain things when it’s nice outside.
We tend to exercise more. Sure, you can exercise in the winter, but it’s really hard to get motivated when it’s cold and dark outside. (Getting up for that 7 a.m. workout is much easier when there’s light shining in through your window.) Once it’s warm and sunny, a lot of us are more likely to go for a walk or run or bike. Of course, we get to reap all the great physical health benefits of exercising (cardiovascular conditioning, muscle and bone strength, and more) but we also get a natural serotonin boost from exercise, which further improves mood, Moore says. A 2018 research review published in Journal of Happiness Studies found that as little as 10 minutes a day, or just one day of exercise per week, may make a difference in our happiness levels.
We spend more time in nature. Chances are, you’re taking your workouts outside more often, as well as hanging out in the park or backyard. All that fresh air, as well as the sights and sounds of nature, also make us feel good. “Staying close to nature improves physical, mental, and spiritual well-being,” Moore says. “It makes us feel alive from the inside.” Research shows that spending time in nature also tends to increase positive emotions—which is a boon for both mental and physical health. A 2019 study published in the journal Nature Reports found 120 minutes per week of nature exposure led people to self-report good health and/or high well-being, with positive associations peaking at 200 to 300 minutes per week. Spending time in nature is also relaxing—it can reduce cortisol and increase concentration and improve brain function in general, Moore says.
We vacation and travel more. Summer is synonymous with “vacation time" for many Americans, Dr. Cappanna-Hodge says. Because of the weather, people tend to take more time off and plan any big trips or adventures for the summer. It’s a time when we all decide to break up our normal routines and rack up new experiences—visiting new cities, trying new foods, spending time with old friends, and making new ones. This also means we’re finally taking some time to relax—and sleep. A study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies found that people clock more time sleeping and report higher quality sleep when they’re on vacation. Anyone who’s ever been sleep-deprived knows the difference even just one good night’s sleep can make on your overall well-being and mood.
We have more opportunities to socialize. Warmer temperatures and better moods make us all more inclined to get out and socialize in the summer. In 2021, this is more important than ever. “Being outside feels good because we are able to more safely meet with people,” Capanna-Hodge says. “There are increased opportunities for socialization. We can go walking with people, ride our bikes, we can have picnics outside.” After a year-plus of social distancing and, for many people, isolation, warm weather opens up a wealth of opportunities to spend time with other people—without the high anxiety levels that many people have felt at the prospect of going to gatherings indoors.
So, no, you’re not imagining it. Summer really does just hit differently. Get out there and soak up the fresh air and sunshine while you can—just don’t forget to slather on the sunscreen!
Seasonal Affective Disorder: National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.) “Seasonal Affective Disorder.” https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/seasonal-affective-disorder/
Health Benefits of Vitamin D: National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. (2021.) “Vitamin D.” https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/
Physical Activity and Happiness: Journal of Happiness Studies. (2018.) “A Systematic Review of the Relationship Between Physical Activity and Happiness.” https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10902-018-9976-0
Nature and Well-Being: Nature Reports. (2019.) “Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing.” https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-44097-3
Nature and Stress Levels: Frontiers in Psychology. (2019.) “Urban Nature Experiences Reduce Stress in the Context of Daily Life Based on Salivary Biomarkers.” https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00722/full
Sleep on Vacation: Journal of Happiness Studies. (2012.) “Vacation (after-) effects on employee health and well-being, and the role of vacation activities, experiences and sleep.” https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10902-012-9345-3