How winter affects our mood, thinking and sexual desire

A growing body of research in psychology and related fields shows that winter brings some profound changes to the way people think, feel and behave.

The natural and cultural changes brought about by winter often occur simultaneously, making it difficult to tease apart the reasons behind these seasonal fluctuations.

Recently, we conducted an extensive investigation of these findings with research colleagues Alexandra Wormley, a social psychologist at Arizona State University, and Mark Schaller, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia.

winter melancholy long hibernation

Do you feel down during the winter months? You are not alone. As the days get shorter, the American Psychiatric Association estimates that about 5% of Americans will experience a form of depression called seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

People with SAD often experience feelings of hopelessness, reduced motivation to participate in activities they normally enjoy, and lethargy. Even those who do not reach the clinical threshold for the disorder may experience an increase in symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Scientists have linked widespread increases in seasonal affective disorder and winter blues to reduced sunlight exposure, which leads to lower levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Consistent with the idea that sunlight plays a key role, SAD is more common in northern parts of the world, such as Scandinavia and Alaska, where the days are shortest and winters are longest.

Humans, while special, are not unique in exhibiting these season-related changes. For example, our primate relatives, the rhesus monkeys, show seasonal declines in mood.

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Some scientists point out that SAD has many similarities to hibernation, a process in which brown bears, ground squirrels and many other species lower their metabolism and skip the worst of winter during hibernation. The disease may be rooted in adaptations to conserve energy during a time of year when food is often scarce and cooler temperatures place greater energy demands on the body.

As we all know, winter is also the time of year when many people gain weight.

Studies show that people eat the worst and gain the most weight in the winter, with a recent review of studies finding that average weight gain during the holidays is about 1 to 3 pounds. Reviews show that people who are overweight or obese tend to gain more weight.

Year-end weight gain may be due to more than just overindulgence in hearty holiday treats.

In our ancestral past, winter meant food became more scarce in many places. The decrease in physical activity during the winter and the increase in how much and how much people eat may be evolutionary adaptations to this scarcity.

If ancestors with these responses to cold winter environments were at an advantage, evolutionary processes would ensure that this adaptation was passed on to their descendants and encoded into our genes.

sex, generosity and focus

In addition to these winter-related mood and waistline changes, the season also brings many other changes in the way people think and interact with others.

A less discussed seasonal effect is that people appear to become more active in the winter. Researchers learned this from analyzes of condom sales, rates of sexually transmitted diseases, and online searches for pornography and prostitution, all of which show the biannual cycle peaks in late summer and winter.

Birth rate data also show that in the United States and other countries in the northern hemisphere, babies are more likely to be conceived in the winter than at other times of the year.

Although this phenomenon is widely observed, the reason for its existence is unclear. Researchers have suggested a number of explanations, including health advantages for babies born in late summer because food may have historically been more plentiful, changes in sex hormones that alter sexual desire, holidays that spark a desire for intimacy, and a simple increase in having sex. Opportunities to act.

But winter doesn’t just boost your libido. Studies have found that people may have an easier time concentrating at school or work this time of year.

Neuroscientists in Belgium found that tasks that measure sustained attention perform best around the winter and summer solstices.

There may also be something to the idea of ​​a generous Christmas spirit.

In countries where the holiday is widely celebrated, rates of charitable giving tend to increase significantly this time of year. People are also tipping more generously, tipping waiters about 4% more during the holidays. This tendency may be a response to the altruistic values ​​associated with the winter holidays, which encourage behaviors such as generosity.

Like many other animals, we are seasonal creatures.

In winter, people tend to eat more, move less, and mate more. You may feel more sullen, while also being kinder to others and having an easier time concentrating. As psychologists and other scientists study these seasonal effects, we may discover that what we know so far is just the tip of the iceberg.

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Michael Varnum is an associate professor of psychology at Arizona State University. Ian Holm is a graduate student in psychology at the University of British Columbia.This article was produced in partnership with dialoguea nonprofit news organization.

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