If you catch yourself smiling more and feeling increasingly carefree during the longer days of the season, consider it a side effect of this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere: Summertime really does set you up to feel more joyful. Check out the seven sneaky ways sunlight and warm weather conspire to make you happier, calmer and more connected.
Thanks to summer’s stronger sunlight and the extra hours in the day to soak it up, you’re more likely to float through the day feeling energized and optimistic. It has to do with serotonin, a hormone that’s been dubbed the “happiness hormone” by scientists. When your body absorbs UV light, it produces more serotonin, and that pumps your mood, explains Ellen Marmur, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine and director of Marmur Medical in New York City. Exposure to sunlight also shuts down production of melatonin, a hormone that leaves you feely sleepy and sluggish.
It only takes a few minutes in the sun to rack up these benefits, says Dr. Marmur. But if you plan on being outdoors for more than 10 minutes at a stretch, be sure to slather sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 on any exposed skin, so you don’t ruin your happiness haze with a painful burn.
Since kindergarten, many people have been conditioned to think of summer as a break from routine and responsibility. And this “school’s-out” mindset carries over into adulthood, where many offices offer employees shorter hours and casual Friday dress codes. “Even though the work world operates year-round and responsibilities don’t suddenly cease, we reflexively feel more carefree during the summer months, like we did when we were kids,” explains Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D., a Los Angeles-based therapist specializing in the psychology of happiness.
We all feel calmer and more relaxed when we’re surrounded by nature — a finding reported by researchers all over the world. Studies from University College London and Deakin University in Australia show that going on a bike ride through a park, strolling along the beach or just inhaling the aroma of flowers in bloom makes us feel less stressed and more serene. Need more proof? A French study published last year linked being in a natural environment with higher levels of personal happiness. And a 2013 study in the journal Social Science & Medicine found that spending time near a body of water in an urban area had a therapeutic effect — so city dwellers can reap the blissful benefits of nature as well.
In many countries, summer provides official holidays and extended vacations to enjoy. It’s also graduation and wedding season — two milestones typically honored with ceremonies and parties. “All that good cheer makes us feel optimism and joy for the future,” says Thomas.
Another consequence of good weather: You’re less likely to blow off a jog, bike ride or other activity. And research shows that increasing your heart rate revs the production of mood-boosting endorphins (it’s the mechanism behind the “runner’s high”). Even if you don’t take part in a specific activity, summer sets up the perfect conditions to move around in less constructed but equally bliss-inducing ways — say by spending the afternoon gardening or playing tug-of-war at a family picnic.
Backyard barbecues, pool parties, company picnics, al fresco dinner parties … summer offers plenty of opportunities for socializing. “Humans are social creatures and mixing with friends, family and even strangers makes us feel part of something larger than ourselves, which is fulfilling,” says Thomas. “The pleasant weather and relaxed vibe help bring people out of isolation and gives us the chance to interact and connect.”
Trashy beach books. Trips to the ice-cream-shop. Afternoons spent lazing on a blanket or hammock. “Summertime is about taking time to smell the roses, so to speak, and giving yourself license to indulge a little without guilt,” says Thomas. We can’t think of a better reason to take a vacation day from work to lie in a chaise lounge or meet up with friends and chill out with a round of ice cream floats.