Nature needs rain, so why are our feelings about it often so mixed? Let’s see what science, mythology and psychology have to say about it.
You might know people who can’t resist a run in the rain and who welcome it with a smile.
Rain in the forecast might seem like bad news, but is it really? For what is rain if not a genius recycling system that makes life on earth possible? If it didn’t rain, we wouldn’t be able to survive here.
Nowhere is this more obvious than the desert. Think about how a film camera sweeps a savannah scarred by drought. The earth is cracked, there is no green to be seen, and the animals living there are battling for survival. Then the rain comes. A long-awaited downpour that hits the ground and is absorbed, creating the conditions needed for life to flourish again. Grasses grow, plants reach for the sky, animals have food and the waterholes fill up.
Without rain nature cannot survive. Even so, it is easy to resent rain clouds gathering on the horizon when we plan to spend time outdoors.
It doesn’t need to be this way, because rain affects us all differently – and not always in the ways you might imagine. A 2008 study found that rain – or rather a lack of it – contributed to the demise of three Chinese dynasties. Analysing stalagmites in a cave, researchers connected periods of extremely low rainfall with catastrophically poor rice harvests, famine, civil unrest and the fall of the Tang, Yuan and Ming dynasties.
High rainfall has also been associated with low levels of criminality in modern times. A New York Times’s study in 2009 showed that murder rates in New York City dropped on rainy days.
Before diving into how rain affects us, let’s look at how it comes about.
When warm and cold air masses collide
Fact: warm air holds more moisture than cold air, and when this warm air rises, it cools down, causing the water molecules it’s carrying to condense and form raindrops. These then fall to earth and there you have it: rain.
But why does warm air rise at all? One scenario is moist air hitting a geographical feature, like a mountain, and being forced upwards. This explains why there are mountain ranges that get a lot of rain on one side and very little on the other. Like the Himalayas. One side of the divide has extremely high rainfall, while the Gobi Desert is on the other.
Rain also forms on warm days when the ground warms up and draws moisture from surrounding areas. This moisture evaporates and rises, until it gets high enough to cool down, condense and become raindrops. This kind of rain often falls in sudden downpours directly onto the place it was formed. It can also build large thunderclouds.
Sometimes, warm and cold air masses collide and force the warm air up without anything physical forcing it to do so. A band of rain in the distance, you can even see exactly where the boundary between rainfall and no rainfall is.
The question is: which side do you want to be on?
Are you a pluviophile?
Imagine a heavy, humid day that ends in the release of rain. The relief that follows, when the air is cleared and the temperature drops, have you felt that? Surely you have stopped for a minute to see how the raindrops sit on petals and leaves, like shiny teardrops quivering inside the thin membrane that holds their liquid insides in-place. Soon after comes the smell that only comes with rain: wet earth, damp asphalt, life. And then suddenly the birds start to sing again. Life goes on.
It’s all a beautiful reminder of how wonderful nature is and it is not unusual for rain to create a feeling of comfort, calm and harmony. When it rains, it is as if our surroundings take a break for a moment. A pause. A breath. The birds quieten. Animals and people often seek shelter. No wonder the sound of rain falling is often used for meditation, and most of us agree that listening to the sound of rain is a peaceful experience.
There are those however, who really come alive when the heavens open. Who welcome it with a smile. Those who cheer as the first drops hit their face and view it as a challenge to be outside for a little longer. These people even have a name: pluviophiles.
For a pluviophile, rain is something to enjoy. It doesn’t matter if they are inside watching the raindrops race each other down the windowpanes or if they are out in the downpour letting it wash over them.
Biblical floods and rain gods
Attitudes towards rain vary depending on where in the world you live. In temperate zones with four seasons, rain is often perceived negatively. In dry areas, rain is welcomed, because it is a matter of life and death.
The importance of rain has inspired films, songs, books and art. Even currency. In Botswana, the Pula means – you guessed it – “rain,” because it is very scarce there.
Rain is also part of religions and mythologies. It is well known that Indigenous Peoples perform rain dances, and similar rituals are found in African cultures, as well as in the Anasazi people, who lived in northern Arizona and New Mexico about 1,000 years ago. In Greek mythology, Zeus rules over the heavens and is god of the clouds, rain, thunder and lightning. In Christianity, rain represents God’s wrath, drowning everything except Noah and two each of all the world’s animals in the great flood. In Mesopotamia, the Akkad considered the clouds to be breasts and the rain to be milk, while the Sumerians believed rain to be the god of the sky, Ans, spreading his seed to fertilise Ki, goddess of the earth.
The psychology of rain
How much does rain affect our mood? Maybe not as much as you might think.
There is research that claims the link between rainy weather and mood is not as strong as we assume. Of course, it is well established that when we haven’t had enough sunlight for a long period of time, our bodies produce the “sleepy” hormone melatonin, while production of the “happy” hormone serotonin decreases. As such it’s easy to presume that rain depresses and sunshine makes us happy. Such presumptions happen when we believe what we think we know to be true. So, when we “know” that we feel low when the rain is pouring down, we do!
In 1980, David Watson, professor of psychology at Notre Dame University in Indiana, conducted a study on 18 Japanese college students. He asked the participants how they were feeling each day and then compared this to the weather. The result was surprising: their mood was entirely independent of the weather. When he later conducted the same study on 478 college students in Texas, he got the same result. Even on days where over 25mm of rain fell, there was no affect found on participants’ moods.
Whether we choose to see rain as science in action, God’s wrath, or milk from the bosom of the sky, the only certainty is that it comes and goes according to its own whims. So, let’s welcome the rain for what it is: life. Because nature is waiting, rain or shine.