For years, we have been told that our mood improves in warm, sunny weather. Study after study has trumpeted the power of a warm summer’s day – we get more Vitamin D in the sunshine, we do more exercise, and we are more likely to spend time in greenery and nature, which offer their own array of psychological benefits. With summer on the way, and with the upcoming May Bank Holiday weekend set to be scorching, we should – if we were living through normal times – be looking forward to a boost to our collective mood.
But these are not normal times.
Britain’s parks and beaches are certainly busier than they were a month ago, with millions of Britons taking advantage of the government’s easing of lockdown rules, in which adults are now allowed to meet one other adult whom they do not live with, as long as they are outside. And any glance at the papers will show you that sunny hotspots like Southend and Bournemouth beaches have been buzzing with leisure-seekers in recent days.
Even so, millions of Britons are still choosing to remain indoors – particularly elderly people and those with health conditions. Data from Apple, which tracks movement through their mobile phones, showed that the number of people walking outside their house was 38 per cent lower on May 19 than the average weekday in January, despite the weather being much better.
For those locked indoors, does sunny weather have the same mood-boosting effects as normal? Or does it do the opposite, by reminding us of what we are missing?
Prof Neil Greenberg, a consultant psychiatrist at King’s College London, has spent years looking at how disasters like terror attacks or natural catastrophes affect public health in the years afterwards. His recent paper, published in The Lancet medical journal, looked at how a long period in medically-enforced quarantine can affect a person’s mental health, focusing on 24 studies of people who were quarantined during previous coronavirus outbreaks, like Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in the early 2000s, and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in the 2010s, in locations as far flung as Taiwan, Australia, Canada, South Korea, and Hong Kong.
Published back in February, the research was carried out for the benefit of the few hundred Britons returning from Wuhan who had been placed into quarantine at hospitals in the Wirral and Milton Keynes – he did not realise then that the whole of the UK, and much of the world, would soon be in the same position.
He found that the patients who had the worst experience of quarantine were those who felt that there was a great deal they were missing in the outside world. Healthcare workers were among the hardest hit, for example, because “they weren’t able to go and do the work they really wanted to, and felt they were letting their colleagues down.”
If it is 26 degrees outside but you are confined to your living room, he says, then it will be easy to feel low – particularly if you are looking at photographs on social media of seemingly packed beaches and parks, which Prof Greenberg advises against.
“The more that you’re losing, the more acute it feels. There’s no doubt that if it’s cold and horrible outside, and someone’s told you to stay in, then that’s going to be an easier situation.”
Those hardest hit by having to spend a sunny Bank Holiday indoors are likely to be younger people with health conditions who may have had bustling social lives before lockdown, but now can only see their friends over Zoom. They are likely to be more severely affected by sunny weather than the very oldest, he says, many of whom already spent much of their time indoors – “which is a problem by itself.”