Reasons & Remarks – Free Daily Awe

In Defense of My Sunrise Watching Habit (According to Science)

Everyone says they have a morning routine, and mine includes watching the sunrise. However, much to my wife’s chagrin, this routine applies to the weekends, as well.

Sure, we have two kids who need to be at school on time, but my reason for getting up so early isn’t just to be punctual. Before the daily chaos begins, I enjoy sharing some quiet time with a fellow early-riser, my 3-year-old daughter, seated on my lap and my fresh cup of coffee nearby.

Yet, there’s something about watching the sun appear over the Laguna Mountains just beyond the San Diego skyline that makes this daily routine even more enjoyable, inspirational and, apparently, good for my health. 

Cue the 5th Dimension’s classic hit Let the Sunshine In.

My morning routine also includes jumping on the computer to check the daily headlines the moment the kids leave for school. However, one morning I Googled, “Why do I feel better when watching a sunrise?” and discovered there was actually scientific justification for my solar-inspired good mood.

A team of researchers led by Alex Smalley, a PhD fellow at the University of Exeter in England, has given scientific evidence to watching sunrises (and sunsets) as a method of making ourselves feel better.

Published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in January 2023, Smalley’s team reported that viewing a sunrise or a sunset triggered a rise in sensations of awe.

The team of researchers also believes these sensations of awe can lead a person to experience improvements in mood, social behavior and overall emotional well-being. The method used to make the connection between the position of the sun and the state of well-being was quite simple. 

Researchers displayed images of urban and natural environments to more than 2,500 participants. By the time they reached the end of a pretty elaborate slideshow, it was apparent that images containing sunrises and sunsets triggered increases in feelings of awe, presumably due to an increase in the participants’ perceptions of natural beauty.

Ultimately, knowing that we can have some control over the production of these feel-good sensations should be motivation for all of us to go ahead and experience more sunrises and sunsets. Matter of fact, as the author of the report, Smalley says in a January University of Exeter release: “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 experience them for free.” 

Clearly, this research indicates that getting up before the sun rises or taking the time to watch the sun set can be well worth the effort. The sensation of awe associated with these encounters triggers a small, but significant increase in mental well-being.  

The best news about this study is that watching a sunrise or sunset has the same outcome, so if you’re not an early bird and can’t wake up in time to prepare coffee before the sun appears on the horizon, perhaps making a margarita and witnessing the natural beauty of the sunset will suffice.

I’m a consummate practitioner of this, as well, and from personal experience, sharing these moments with significant others increases the positive impact. Therefore, the next time my wife complains about me and our daughter getting out of bed to watch the sunrise on a Saturday morning, I can blame it on Smalley.

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