Sunshine = smiles

Sunset Cambodia

I have just returned from a five-week holiday in England. Although I grew up in this country, for the past two and a half years Cambodia has been my home. There are many differences which can be noted between these two places but for me, one of the biggest, and best, differences is the amount of sunshine Cambodia sees. I loved spending time with my family at home and actually the weather wasn’t bad at all considering it was December, but by the time I was boarding my flight at Heathrow, I was itching to feel the warmth of the sun on my skin again. Which led me to wonder: does sunshine make us happy?

Well, no. Studies of happiness world wide often see countries such as Norway, Canada, Sweden and Denmark top the lists, places which cannot boast long hours of sunshine nor warmth year round. When comparing happiness levels of people living in California and Midwesterners, psychologists David Shkade and Daniel Kahneman also discovered than not only were their happiness levels largely the same but that weather had a fairly insignificant impact on people’s happiness. Most happiness ‘ranks’ focus more on categories such as GDP levels, life expectancy, social support, freedom, generosity and corruption rather than how much sun or rain someone experiences. Which makes sense if you think about the children who scour the streets of Phnom Penh looking through people’s trash to make a living. They may be exposed to sunshine twelve hours a day but the rest of their results are going to be way down. So perhaps sunshine doesn’t equal happiness …

In 1984, a South African psychiatrist named Norman Rosenthal diagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). This is seen as a condition which results in people experiencing higher levels of depression and lower levels of energy during the winter. Approximately seven per cent of Brits are thought to suffer from SAD. Could the cause of this, however, be flipped on its head? In April, temperatures in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital can climb to a stifling 40 degrees Celsius. At this point, most activities within the city cease and people lie on their couches, sweating and trying to keep cool. We certainly suffer from lower levels of energy and could be considered slightly depressed by the cloying, unending heat. Perhaps SAD is something which occurs during extreme weather conditions, regardless of which end of the spectrum you are experiencing.

Yet more scientific research, however, has proved a definitive link between sunshine and serotonin, one of the four key hormones responsible for feelings of happiness. People suffering from SAD are often diagnosed as having low serotonin levels and advised to undertake bright-light therapy. This treatment usually sees a mood boost quickly as the release of serotonin is stimulated through the exposure to light. Serotonin is produced when the body (our eyes in particular) is exposed to sunlight, just as our melatonin levels decrease (the hormone which regulates our sleep).

Vitamin D is also produced by our body when ultraviolet rays shine upon our skin. Sunblock actually prevents these rays from penetrating our skin, protecting us from the risk of skin cancer but also stunting our body’s ability to produce Vitamin D. Now, I’m not suggesting you forgo sunblock forevermore but a little exposed skin for a short period of time can never be a bad thing. Plus, high levels of Vitamin D in your body decreases your risk of some cancers, including skin!

Experts recommend everyone should expose themselves to 15 minutes of sunshine (without sunblock) three times a week to produce the necessary Vitamin D to strengthen bones and prevent depression, diabetes, and heart disease amongst other maladies. Here in Cambodia, I can easily achieve this prescribed sunshine level without thinking anything of it – a walk to my local corner store and I’ve done what I need to for the day. And yet, there are times in England during the winter months when this isn’t possible … No offence, England, I know you’re trying as hard as you can. But consistent days or even weeks of grey, cloudy skies aren’t exactly uncommon. Unhealthy, however, perhaps they are.

So despite various research papers concluding no tangible link between happiness and sunshine, biologically speaking there is one. To be able to expose your skin to sunlight means to be able to ensure the regular production of Vitamin D and an increase in serotonin. Interestingly, dark skin absorbs less sunlight, making it harder to get Vitamin D. Perhaps this could account for why Scandinavian countries obtain such high happiness ratings. Well, that and the fact that they can afford to jet off somewhere sunny for their summer holidays, unlike sun-drenched, financially poor tribes of central Africa.

I love England and I love to visit, but I cannot deny how my heart sang yesterday as I touched back down in my beloved Cambodia. Perhaps it was the rays of the setting sun, piercing my optic nerve and sparking my serotonin levels or perhaps it was simply being back in the country I now call home. Either way, I know I’m happier living in a sunny country, but whether that happiness comes from the eternal sunshine, my friends, my job, or something in Cambodia itself remains to be seen.