Birds, buds and bright days: how spring can make us healthier and happier

Longer, lighter days can help us banish old habits, sleep better and improve our mental health, even during the lockdown

Thank goodness that, in this time of crisis, it is now spring. In the northern hemisphere, at least, we can say hello to green shoots, flowers, bumblebees and butterflies. Finally, the clocks have gone back to British Summer Time. We’ve lost an hour of sleep, but hello, light.

The greatest hope for the new season this year is that better weather will start to make it harder for coronavirus to spread. And for those lucky enough to still have their health, spring can provide other consolations. Its strong sense of a new beginning nudges our outlook and actions in welcome ways. Katherine Milkman, a behavioural scientist at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied the phenomenon and found that there is more to spring cleaning than the sunlight suddenly showing up cobwebs and window smears. “The start of spring generally makes us feel more motivated – it’s a so-called ‘fresh start date’,” she says. As such, it makes us feel less connected to the past. “That disconnect gives us a sense that whatever we messed up on previously, we can get right now. Maybe the old you failed to quit smoking or start a lasting exercise routine, but the new you can do it.”

These moments, she says, also tend “to promote bigger-picture thinking, which gets us focused on our goals”. Whether facing health, financial or professional worries, newly working from home or home schooling, or being suddenly at a loss for something to do, Milkman says this effect can stretch “across all of our goal-oriented activities. We’ve seen that it affects everything from decisions about exercise to retirement savings.”

Spring can also fortify us with the relief it brings from seasonal affective disorder (Sad). Even if you do not have a clinical case of it, says Hugh Selsick, chair of the sleep working group at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, “most people will experience some degree of lifting of mood in the summer months”. Studies looking at populations in North America have illustrated this neatly, according to Selsick. “The further north you go, the worse our mood gets in the winter, because of that lack of light. For us [in the north] the payoff is that we also get these really nice bright long, spring and summer days.

“As humans, we evolved in a tropical place, where there was a lot more light,” Selsick says. This means our brains have evolved to expect a certain amount of it. “It’s probably why we are so susceptible to changes in light,” he says. And why the gloomier months can negatively affect sleep patterns and mood.

Woman looking through a window
Breathe deep ... our brains have evolved to expect more light than we get in winter. Photograph: martin-dm/Getty Images

Sad symptoms that spring might alleviate include low mood, tiredness, sleeping longer than normal and, says Selsick, cravings of carbohydrates in particular. So feel free to harness this knowledge to fuel a new effort to start exceeding your five a day.

Now that most of us are only allowed out once a day, for exercise, the greatest gains in terms of making the most of spring light are to be had from stepping out first thing in the morning. Not only will getting up and out help avoid the crowds of joggers, but morning light is the most crucial for setting our circadian rhythms. “It’s much better at synchronising our body clocks and getting us back into sync with the outside world,” says Selsick.

When it’s dark, we produce melatonin, which acts as a time signal to the body, telling it we should be sleepy. “That first bit of light in the morning,” says Selsick, “is very effective at switching that melatonin off, which then tells the brain and the rest of the body it’s now time to be awake and active.

“We have a special set of receptors in our eyes which communicate directly with the body clock in the brain,” he adds. “They’re particularly sensitive to blue-green light, which on a [sunny] day like today is the colour of the sky. So that sort of bright sunlight, that outdoor light is what our brains are particularly sensitive to.” Exposure to this in the morning helps us to wake up and shake off bleary-eyed grumpiness. “And it helps to regulate our sleep. If your body knows when the day is starting, it’s easier for it to also know at what time it needs to start winding down and getting ready for sleep.” And of course sleeping well has the positive knock-on effect of giving you a better shot at feeling content and having good overall health.

The big danger with being locked down, warns Selsick, is “allowing your whole rhythm to drift”. Even if a temporary break from commuting allows you to sleep in a little, keep your waking-up time consistent to reap the benefits of the spring sunshine. “If you’re getting that first dose of light at a different time every morning, your body has no idea where it is in time,” he says. “You’re essentially jet-lagging your body by having a different rising time every day.” Setting regular meal times helps keep our daily rhythms in sync, too.

It’s essential that we make the most of opportunities to be outside, whether it’s that one permitted outing, or additional gardening, or spending some time on the balcony. “The more outdoors you can get the better, without getting in close contact with people,” says Selsick.

Getting some sun can fill our heads with new ideas, too. In 2005, psychologists at the University of Michigan found that half an hour out in the sun boosted not only mood, but also memory and creativity. To test the latter, they assessed changes in what they call cognitive broadening – “a style of thinking in which people become more creative and which is hypothesised to be an adaptive shift in cognition that leads to behavioral flexibility and exploration”, write the authors.

Late-evening light may be less likely to have an impact on circadian rhythms than morning rays, but, says Selsick, “people do generally report a better quality of life if they have some light in the evening”. Indeed. A 2016 study by researchers at Brigham Young University in Utah looked at six years of data from more than 16,000 adults and found that seasonal increases in hours of sunshine correlated with decreased mental health distress.

Longer days also seem to extend the amount of use we get from waking hours. When it’s light in the evenings, it feels like daytime for longer. Staying up to batch cook, bake bread or, in the current climate, have beers with friends over Zoom, will seem appealing all of a sudden. “Light does to some extent push sleep away a little bit,” says Selsick. “And people do often feel more alert when there’s bright light.”

Gardening time with my daddyYoung man and his son taking care of their plants on the balcony of loft apartment
Have balcony, will garden ... a spot of seasonal potting. Photograph: AleksandarNakic/Getty Images

And of course, with spring, light and warmth comes nature. April will see the return of swallows, swifts, cuckoos, martins and other feathery summer visitors. The more birds we see in our neighbourhoods, and the more greenery, the more robust our mental health will be, according to a 2017 study by the University of Exeter. In 2019, data from 20,000 British people crunched by researchers at the same university showed that the more time spent enjoying nature, the greater life satisfaction reported.

This is why GPs have been prescribing gardening as therapy. So plant some seeds and watch them grow, whether that’s in a flowerbed or a window-sill or balcony pot. Get a bird feeder – ensuring it’s inaccessible to squirrels, which are bird’s nest predators. Dig out your binoculars and indulge in some twitching, or figure out (with some online help) which song belongs to which bird.

The green shoots of a new chapter in our lives provide opportunities to do better, says Milkman. “The Covid-19 crisis is inaugurating a new era and shaking up our routines. Horrific as the crisis is, it presents an opportunity to size up our routines and consider what we want to change and how we can be better. I hope people will capitalise on that motivation and find ways to help one another (from a requisite social distance) and themselves achieve important goals.”

Yes, we are on lockdown. We may be emotionally exhausted and scared, but at least spring makes our daily outdoor exercise allowance more enticing. On warmer days, we can throw open the windows, let the fresh air flood in and expel the indoor pollutants that have accumulated from a winter’s worth of cooking and cleaning. We can welcome the reduction in traffic noise and fumes. These may be bittersweet byproducts of virus hell, but it’s all the better to hear the birds.


Amy Fleming

The GuardianTramp

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