BYU study finds inversion, rainy days have no effect on emotional distress

An individual looks out into the water at Utah Lake. BYU professors found no statistically significant effect of cloudy days on emotional distress, but they did find that sun time plays a role in a person’s emotional state. (Jessica Olsen)

Rain, pollution and cold temperatures don’t necessarily get students down, but lack of sun time does, according to a study by BYU professors.

The professors teamed up to analyze six years of therapy distress measures across 19 weather and pollution variables to better understand environmental factors on emotional distress.

The study, entitled “Sunshine on my shoulders: Weather, pollution, and emotional distress,” found sun time, or the time between when the sun rises and sets, to be the only significant factor in emotional distress.

“I think what is most interesting about this study is what didn’t end up being significant,” said assistant clinical professor Davey Erekson.

Erekson worked on the study with BYU counseling psychology professor Mark Beecher and statistics professor Dennis Eggett. Erekson confirmed past studies that claimed seasonal decreases in sun time is associated with increased emotional distress.

Although other factors like temperature and weather were initially statistically significant, after accounting for sun time, the significance of these factors on emotional distress dropped out.

“There’s often an assumption that on rainy days, people are more depressed,” Beecher said. “We just didn’t find that. Not saying that isn’t the case, but we just didn’t find that.”

Beecher said he and his team expected to see negative effects of solar radiance — how much of the sun’s rays get through the clouds on an average day — on people’s distress. Erekson was especially disappointed to see no significant effect of pollution on distress.

“Inversion is terrible here, and I was mad about inversion, and yet it’s not worsening the mental health on BYU students on campus,” Erekson said.

The professors also factored in other variables like the lunar cycle because the data was available. The results found no effect of the lunar cycle on emotional distress, even though “lunacy” stems from “lunar” and is associated with mental distress.

Erekson said they didn’t believe there to be a correlation between emotional distress and the lunar cycle, but it was one more commonly-held belief the study disproved.

The study was also unique in how much data was available. The study combined hourly data of weather and other variables with surveys the BYU counseling center gives to every student who comes in to see a counselor.

“I think it’s a very unique study,” said Eggett, who compiled the data. “I don’t think anybody has taken all the weather, pollution and astrological data and put it all in one study.”

“We are famous for … having all this information from people who come into the counseling center,” Erekson said.

Eggett wrote a program which randomly chose 500 people from years’ worth of the BYU counseling center’s data. He ran the random sample 10,000 times. For each person he looked at all of the appointments and then matched all of the survey answers from those appointments to the weather, pollution and astrological data. Eggett estimated that for the three months he worked on compiling the data, he spent between 10 and 15 hours per week programming the data.

“There’s just so much data … When you get a larger and larger sample size, the odds of getting a significant sample size goes through the roof,” Erekson said. “What’s cool is we found one thing that was significant even with a dataset this large … It feels like a really solid finding.”

The team plans on using this data to research the effects of these variables on attendance at the BYU counseling center.

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