Hot and Bothered: The Environmental Impact on Human Emotion

Have you ever thought of moving to a new city when you’re sad? You may hear people tell you that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side, but a change in the surrounding environment can have a direct impact on the state of your emotions.

That’s a fact that may not come as much of a surprise. It’s often talked about how sunny days tend to be happier than rainy and gloomy ones, but your body temperature can also provide insight to how you feel. According to the amount of sunshine, rain and exposure to warmth you have can directly impact your mood.

Sunlight is a good place to start in the conversation. It can affect chemical reactions in your body that cause you to feel a variety of different ways. Stanley Lowen, the author of the article, lists the following effect as a primary motivator of happier feelings:

“The presence of light means that the brain ceases to produce melatonin – the sleep hormone that makes us tireder and less alert. Because light prevents melatonin production this in turn means that it also makes us more awake, switched on and alert and with more energy.”

While sunlight halts the production of melatonin, it launches the creation of serotonin in the brain. This is the same chemical that is often included in antidepressants to help those who deal with such chemical deficiencies to feel better.

Sunlight provides it’s own benefit but temperature is more ingrained in our emotions than just that. The truth is that our body radiates temperature in different ways depending on the emotion it is feeling. A piece by Cecil Adams in the Washington City Paper earlier this year demonstrates a few examples specifically related to the most basic of human emotions. These are thoughts and feelings we don’t have any control over like anger or fear. They are automatic reactions to things in your surroundings, while “complex emotions like envy… require self-consciousness.” His primary example is related to an encounter with a bear.

“Maybe you see (a) bear stealing your food, thus threatening your survival—you get angry... You’re hot because, perceiving something that riles you, your body automatically raises its heart rate and blood pressure in preparation for some sort of fight-or-flight outcome.”

How and why this happens has been a hotly contested chicken or egg debate for nearly a hundred and fifty years. Do we automatically respond to the situation first or do we cognitively recognize the situation and react appropriately? You can read more on the debate in Adams’s write-up.

In case you were wondering, because I was, you can still get hot and go pale. The fight-or-flight response triggers a release of adrenaline into the bloodstream. While adrenaline has a number of effects, it increases blood flow to the arms, legs, shoulders, brain, eyes, ears and nose so you are more acutely aware of a situation and how to survive it. This removes the blood flow from the surface of the body, thus making your skin appear pale.

Sleep can also be a major factor in mood, and, as we talked about a few months ago, is also affected by temperature.  A lack of sleep often means a lacking mood. Sleep deprivation is linked to irritability and prolonged issues are connected to mood disorders like anxiety and depression. It’s something to keep in mind next time you’re binging on Netflix.

A team of Finnish scientists took the conversation on emotions a step further and asked a group of people to map out where they felt different emotions in their bodies. Even though the research groups were diverse in nature across a multitude of cultures, the feelings are surprisingly consistent. The results were mapped out as feelings of warmth. You can learn more about the study in the video below.

According to the heat map in the research a number of possible outcomes exist depending on how you’re feeling. Happiness makes us feel warmth all over. Sadness leaves us feeling cold or without any stimulation. Disgust is warmth in the throat and stomach, and anger makes us hot heads. That last one may not be too much of a surprise for anyone who’s ever had road rage.

Next time you find yourself feeling hot headed or chilled by sadness try to think about ways to change your environment for bettering your mood. Even if the grass isn’t greener immediately, take solace in knowing the sun could always come out tomorrow.