Walk in Nice Weather Improves Mood

ByABC News

Nov. 4, 2004 -- — So your candidate lost, and you're in a foul mood. What are you going to do about it? A new study suggests a possible prescription for emotional relief:

As soon as a sunny day comes your way, get outside for at least 30 minutes.

Researchers have tried repeatedly over the years to show some correlation between weather and mood, with mixed and usually unimpressive results, but a study of 600 persons across the United States shows that spending a little time outside on a nice day can make a difference.

The effect isn't "huge," says psychologist Matthew Keller, lead author of a study in an upcoming issue of the journal "Psychological Science," but it's significant.

So many things affect mood, like elections and personal expectations, that weather isn't likely to be a major player, Keller says. But three different studies all came up with the same results. It can make a difference.

Keller was working on his doctorate at the University of Michigan when he began wondering how much effect the weather has on moods.

"Michigan is one of the cloudiest states in the country," he says. "The winters are long and very cloudy. You never see the sun."

So awhile back he buzzed down to Mexico for a little vacation, and discovered that the sun was still up there.

"It made me realize that that's what life is all about. Life has color, life is fun. I tended to forget that during the winters up in Michigan."

So he teamed up with Michigan psychology professors Barbara Frederickson and Oscar Ybarra "to see if there's some sort of interaction" between weather and mood.

It's a tough thing to measure, especially in the industrial world where people spend an average of 93 percent of their time indoors, so the researchers set up three different tests. The first two consisted primarily of asking the participants how much time they had spent outside that day, and then checking with the local weather bureau to correlate their moods with the weather. The results depended largely upon the participants describing their own moods to the investigators.

In the third test, however, the researchers established controls on the participants to reduce the effect of certain activities unrelated to the weather, like exercise. Some of the participants walked for 30 minutes around a track. Others walked in a city park for the same length of time. And the rest walked on a treadmill inside, so all three groups were exercising.

Numerous studies have shown that regular exercise improves mood, as well as health, and this phase of the project was designed to eliminate that factor, since all of the participants were exercising.

The researchers found that when the participants were outside on a warm, pleasant day, their moods improved. For most, 72 degrees turned out to be just about perfect.

But depending on where they lived, that number varied considerably. Up in Michigan, 65 degrees passed for a nice day. Down in sunny and warm Texas, 86 degrees was just about right.

Keller speculates that what we perceive as a pleasant day depends partly on where we live.

"If you lived in Mexico, where the sun shines nearly every day, a bright, sunny day probably wouldn't have the same effect as if you lived in Alaska," he says.

And chances are, if you had your dreams hitched to a losing candidate in this year's election, even one beautiful day may not be enough to cheer you up.

Keller, who has now forsaken the cloudy winters of Michigan for sunny Southern California, where he is doing research on psychiatric genetics at the University of California, Los Angeles, was interviewed the morning after the election on a warm, sunny day.

Did his candidate win?

"He lost," Keller says. "I'm really down about it. I'm probably going to need to stare into the sun for about a year."

OK. We said the effect wasn't huge.

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the "Los Angeles Times," he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.