New research quantifies the “wow” factor

Digital Sunrise

Sunrise image as used in the research study. Photo credit: University of Exeter

A new study has quantified the impact of fleeting natural events on humans for the first time.

A recent study has quantified for the first time the impact that fleeting natural events such as sunrise and sunset have on humans. Researchers wanted to identify the impact of these events on individuals and understand their impact.

Although the effects of nature on mental health have been extensively researched, most studies have only evaluated these effects under calm weather conditions and clear skies. Surprisingly few studies, however, have examined how humans respond to weather variations and the Sun’s diurnal patterns, known as “ephemeral phenomena.”

To fill this gap, the researchers used the latest computer graphics to show more than 2,500 participants carefully controlled images of both urban and natural environments. When these scenes included elements such as sunrise and sunset, participants found them to be significantly more beautiful than at any other time of day in sunny conditions.

Digital Sunset

Digital sunset in research study. Photo credit: University of Exeter

Unexpectedly, the paper revealed that sunrise and sunset could also significantly increase people’s sense of awe. An emotion that’s usually difficult to evoke, showing that awe has the potential to improve mood, encourage positive social behavior, and increase positive emotions—all valuable factors in increasing overall well-being.

Published in Journal of Environmental Psychology, the paper also considered rarer events such as rainbows, thunderstorms and starry, moonlit skies in the experiment. Each of these phenomena altered the extent to which people experienced beauty and awe in diverse landscapes versus sunny, blue skies.

Crucially, these changes also resulted in different ratings of the environments – assessed by asking participants how much they would be willing to pay to experience each scene in the real world.

Participants were willing to pay a premium of nearly 10 percent to visit a natural setting at sunrise compared to blue skies. The research team said this type of added value is usually attributed to more enduring features, such as scenic lakes or historic buildings. They suggested that encouraging people to experience sunsets and sunrises could increase wellbeing and be used as part of the green prescription, where nature plays a therapeutic role in mental health treatments.

Alex Smalley, a Ph.D. Fellow at the University of Exeter and lead author of the study, said: “We all know the urge to snap a picture of a brilliant sunset or an unexpected rainbow. The term “sunset” has over 300 million tags on Instagram and people have told us that they would be willing to pay a premium to experience these phenomena, but of course we can all experience them for free. Our research shows that waking up a little earlier for sunrise or planning a walk to catch the sunset might be worth the effort—the “wow” factor associated with these encounters might have small but significant bumps in Trigger feelings of beauty and awe, which in turn have positive effects on psychological well-being.”

The authors also noted that the occurrences of the phenomena they tested can vary widely depending on where people live. Those on the east-facing coasts can see sunrise more easily, while those on the west experience sunset more often. Likewise, the UK can experience more thunderstorms in the summer, but have more rainbows in the winter.

Alex Smalley added: “Most of the phenomena we tested can be fleeting and unpredictable, and we believe this novelty is in part behind the effects we see. Given their potential to transform people’s experiences in both natural and urban landscapes, there could be real value in highlighting how and where these events can be experienced, particularly in cities.”

Reference: “Beyond Thinking Under Blue Skies: Daily Patterns and Ephemeral Meteorological Phenomena Influence Appraisals of Beauty, Awe, and Value in Urban and Natural Landscapes” by Alexander J. Smalley and Mathew P. White, January 10, 2023, Journal of Environmental Psychology.
DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2023.101955


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