Sunrises and sunsets can impact health and wellbeing

A new study, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, has identified the impact that fleeting natural events, such as sunrises and sunsets can have on people. The researchers sought to quantify the effects of these ephemera for the first time.

The effects of nature on our mental health have been extensively researched, but most studies have been conducted under calm, blue skies. Few have considered how we respond to changes in weather and the daily rhythms of the sun, described as ‘ephemeral phenomena’.

In an effort to close this gap, researchers showed carefully controlled images of both natural and urban environments to over 2,500 participants. The participants considered these scenes significantly more beautiful when they featured elements such as sunrises and sunsets rather than when they were seen under sunny conditions.

A surprising finding of the paper was that sunrises and sunsets can also trigger significant increases in awe. While being difficult to evoke, research indicates that feeling a sense of awe can improve mood, enhance positive social behaviour, and increase positive emotions, all of which have a positive impact on health and wellbeing. Also, cultivating a sense of awe has been shown to decrease inflammation – which as we practitioners know, underlies every chronic illness.

Among the rarer events considered in the experiment were rainbows, thunderstorms, and starry skies at night. Each of these phenomena altered the extent to which people experienced beauty and awe in different landscapes, when compared to sunny, blue skies.

Interestingly, these changes were also behind variations in how the environments were valued –value being by asking participants how much they would be willing to pay to experience each scene in the real world.

Study participants were prepared to pay a premium of almost 10 percent to visit a natural setting at sunrise compared to visiting that same setting under blue skies. The research team said this type of ‘added value’ is normally attributed to more permanent features, such as scenic lakes or historic buildings. They suggested that encouraging people to experience sunsets and sunrises could help boost well-being, and could be integrated into ‘green prescribing’, where nature plays a beneficially therapeutic role in mental health treatment.

Alex Smalley, a Ph.D. fellow at the University of Exeter and lead author of the research, explained:

“We’re all familiar with the urge to take a photo of a brilliant sunset or unexpected rainbow. The term ‘sunset’ has over 300 million tags on Instagram and people told us they’d be willing to pay a premium to experience these phenomena, but of course, we can all experience them for free. Our research indicates that getting up a bit earlier for sunrise or timing a walk to catch sunset could be well worth the effort – the ‘wow’ factor associated with these encounters might unlock small but significant bumps in feelings of beauty and awe, which could, in turn, have positive impacts for mental wellbeing.”

The authors also described the ways in which the occurrence of the phenomena they tested could vary greatly – based on where people live. Those on east-facing coastlines might find sunrise easier to see, whereas those in the west might more frequently experience the sunset. Similarly, thunderstorms may be more common in summer in the UK, yet rainbows appear more often in winter. Alex Smalley added:

“Most of the phenomena we tested can be fleeting and unpredictable, and we think this novelty is partly behind the effects we’re seeing. Given their potential to change people’s experiences in both natural and urban landscapes, there could be real value in highlighting how and where these events might be experienced, particularly in towns and cities.”

The paper, “Beyond blue-sky thinking: Diurnal patterns and ephemeral meteorological phenomena impact appraisals of beauty, awe, and value in urban and natural landscapes”, is published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

As Henry David Thoreau once wrote: “Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.”


Alexander J. Smalley, Mathew P. White,
Beyond blue-sky thinking: Diurnal patterns and ephemeral meteorological phenomena impact appraisals of beauty, awe, and value in urban and natural landscapes,

Journal of Environmental Psychology,
Volume 86, 2023, 101955, ISSN 0272-4944, (