Why Writers Need to Watch More Sunsets

Filed in The Healthy Writer by on September 25, 2017 • views: 2110

One of the reasons I love this time of year is that it brings amazing sunsets.

Unsettled weather patterns and varied cloud types combine to create some of the most beautiful displays we see all year long.

I often walk west and just stare at the horizon. It’s a sort of meditation, focusing on the orange and yellow and red and gray colors as the sun gradually drops out of sight, leaving behind its peaceful pastel rays. I linger at the end of my route, not wanting to turn east again.

One night I got to thinking about it: why are we so drawn to sunsets? We take many pictures of them, even though few shots can come close to capturing the reality. On the west coast, I’ve often watched from a hill overlooking the ocean as beachcombers slow and eventually stop to watch the sun go down.

I’ve done this many times, and I’ve never seen anyone able to resist stopping while the sun is setting. There’s something about it that gets people to turn and pay attention, even if just for a few minutes.

Authors over the ages have had a lot to say about sunsets. Here are just a few of their writings:

Softly the evening came. The sun from the western horizon
Like a magician extended his golden wand o’er the landscape;
Twinkling vapors arose; and sky and water and forest
Seemed all on fire at the touch, and melted and mingled together.

~Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Evangeline

A moment, and its glory was no more. The sun went down beneath the long dark lines of hill and cloud which piled up in the west an airy city, wall heaped on wall, and battlement on battlement; the light was all withdrawn; the shining church turned cold and dark; the stream forgot to smile; the birds were silent; and the gloom of winter dwelt on everything.

~Charles Dickens, Life And Adventures Of Martin Chuzzlewit

Sometimes the gods have no taste at all. They allow sunrises and sunsets in ridiculous pink and blue hues that any professional artist would dismiss as the work of some enthusiastic amateur who’d never looked at a real sunset. This was one of those sunrises. It was the kind of sunrise a man looks at and says, ‘No real sunrise could paint the sky Surgical Appliance Pink.’
Nevertheless, it was beautiful.

~Terry Pratchett, The Time Thief

What is it about sunsets that are so captivating? I did a bit of research. What I discovered is that watching sunsets is good for us, emotionally and physically, and that we should all be doing it more often!

1. It can make you feel better.

You may have noticed a sense of peace after a few minutes watching a beautiful sunset. Turns out that any such connection with nature can improve our well-being, particularly if we are attuned to nature’s beauty.

Several studies have found that people who do things like take a walk in the park, spend time surrounded in nature, and even look at pictures of nature, experience greater vitality than those who don’t. Those walking in nature also experience less frustration and higher alertness than those walking in urban environments.

Scientists aren’t sure yet why this is, but while they continue to try to figure it out, we can take advantage of this easy way to make each day just a little bit better. You always have a chance before the sun goes down to get out and watch. Even just 10 minutes can make a big difference.

2. It may help you feel more compassion for others.

Gandhi is quoted as saying, “When I admire the wonders of a sunset or the beauty of the moon, my soul expands in the worship of the creator.”

An interesting set of four studies showed that all of us may be touched in similar ways by natural beauty, to the point that we feel a general sense of compassion for each other, and are less focused on ourselves. In all the studies, researchers found that the positive feelings generated by natural beauty led to expressions of greater concern for others.

Volunteers who gazed at pictures of nature before playing a game, for instance, were more generous in giving away points than those exposed to less attractive pictures. Researchers said that when participants viewed nature images that were considered beautiful, they were more “generous and trusting,” and exhibited “increasing helpful behavior.”

We can use this knowledge to our advantage in many ways. Watching a sunset together as a family, for instance, may help improve how we treat one another. If you’re about to write a scene where one character needs to show another compassion, some sunset-viewing before you write may enrich your scene.

3. It can help you feel more in control of your time.

Do you feel rushed all the time lately? Find yourself so busy that it’s hard to fit creative writing time in?

It’s a common struggle in today’s world—one that may be helped by watching sunsets. When the sun, the clouds, and the sky put on a particularly spectacular show, many of us experience a sense of awe. According to one study, that awe can actually “expand” our perception of time.

In other words, if you want time to slow down just for a few minutes, watch a sunset.

Researchers conducted three different experiments, and found in each one that participants who felt awe, over any other emotion, felt like they had more time available, and also felt less impatient. These participants also felt more willing to help other people, and experienced greater life satisfaction.

“Mediation analyses revealed that these changes in decision making and well-being were due to awe’s ability to alter the subjective experience of time,” the researchers wrote. “Experiences of awe bring people into the present moment, and being in the present moment underlies awe’s capacity to adjust time perception, influence decisions, and make life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.”

Next time you’re thinking you don’t have time to write, step outside and watch the sun go down. I can help stop your racing thoughts, and encourage a more focused state that will benefit your writing and creativity.

4. It may increase your energy and vitality.

Many studies have found that spending time outdoors helps increase energy and vitality, no matter what else we’re doing. Scientists reported in 2010, for example, that taking walks outdoors increased vitality more than taking walks indoors, and that photographs of nature were much more energizing than photographs of city buildings.

On many days, though, it can be difficult to get outside. Work and other activities can keep us indoors much of the day and night, to the point where we get very little fresh air. But who can resist the call to “come see the sunset!”? Few of us.

“Nature is fuel for the soul,“ said Richard Ryan, Ph.D., lead author of the study noted above. “Often when we feel depleted we reach for a cup of coffee, but research suggests a better way to get energized is to connect with nature.”

Writers always need more energy to do their work. Watching a sunset or just getting out for a short walk outdoors is a simple way to get some.

5. It promotes a meditative state.

You’ve probably experienced it before—that sensation of losing yourself in the colors of a sunset. There’s something about the peace of it, the colors, and the awareness of the day coming to an end that can bring our attention completely into the moment, which is essentially what meditation is.

You may have trouble meditating in other ways, but you can probably achieve it while watching the sunset. Just focus on the color changes and let your thoughts go by, and you’ll likely find yourself sort of blanking out and losing track of time. This is a sort of mindfulness that scientists have connected to a number of health benefits, including reduced stress and increased well being.

Sunsets are also a great time to allow new writing ideas to come to you. I have found on many occasions that while walking and staring at the sunset, something new will break through at the back of my mind, totally unbidden, that provides a solution to a plot problem or a deeper insight into a character. You may have experienced something like that, too, so why not take advantage of the opportunity more often?

Here’s hoping you get out to enjoy the sunset in your neck of the woods this evening, and for many evenings to come. As author and philosopher Bernard Williams said:

It’s almost impossible to watch a sunset and not dream.

Do you enjoy watching sunsets? Do you find they enhance your writing or other creative practice?

Jia WeiZhang, et al., “Engagement with natural beauty moderates the positive relation between connectedness with nature and psychological well-being,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, June 2014; 38:55-63, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494414000024.

Jia WeiZhang, “An occasion for unselfing: Beautiful nature leads to prosociality,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, March 2014; 37: 61-72, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494413000893.

Mealanie Rudd, et al., “Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time, Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being,” Psychological Science, October 1 2012; 23(10):1130-6, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22886132.

Richard M. Ryan, et al., “Vitalizing effects of being outdoors and in nature,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, June 2010; 30(2):159-168, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272494409000838.

“Spending Time in Nature Makes People Feel More Alive, Study Shows,” University of Rochester, [Press Release], June 3, 2010, http://www.rochester.edu/news/show.php?id=3639.

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Comments (14)

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  1. Angela Noel says:

    Sunsets are like the fancy dinners of nature. They’re so special, so magnificent it seems like being treated to one is a special event. Of course, they happen every day. Which just goes to show, I think, inspiration is everywhere. We don’t have to wait for a special occasion to enjoy it. I love the quote on the power of “awe.” I find that if I tune my awareness a little, the way the leaves blow in the wind can feed my awe. Sunsets are amazing, but even the simplest of things can give me pause enough to feel inspired. Thank you for the post. I loved the pictures and the chance to “stand in awe” while I read.

  2. I often step outside with my camera to photograph the setting sun. If I’m driving west at that time I just watch the show in awe. Sunsets are a gift from the Creator to everyone, rich or poor, in any country or with any political affiliation. It is a gift to both the just and the unjust. It has often calmed me after a hectic day.

  3. Kate says:

    Lovely article Colleen! Our house faces the eastern sky and I love the eastern sunset with the still cornflower coloured sea and the rosy glow that lights up the sky. Lately, I’ve been up early enough to catch the sunrise and I believe dawn, for those who are up early enough to catch it, has the same effect as the sunset. I totally agree, that catching either the sunset or sunrise is good for us in so many ways.

    • Colleen says:

      Thanks, Kate! Sounds lovely. Yes, there are some similarities for sure, but I feel there are some subtle differences between sunrise and sunset too. Maybe because I’m always so bleary-eyed in the morning? :O)

  4. Claudia says:

    Thanks for another wonderful post. I will definitely watch the sun slip from the sky this evening!

  5. Tina Welling says:

    I enjoyed reading this, Colleen. It was a good validation of my own findings. My book WRITING WILD, Forming a Creative Partnership with Nature (published by New World Library) explores this idea of recognizing that the natural world is the macrocosm of creative energy and our own personal experience (writing) is the microcosm. So we can learn much about the our creative life through connecting with nature. I’ll be using your findings in my upcoming workshops. Thank you for that and for all your many good columns.

  6. Colleen, you’ve made me hunger for the sunsets I saw from Key West where the sun melts into the water and those from my son’s back porch in Arizona where the sun bathes the tall hills with gold before sinking out of sight. It truly is calming just to think about it.

    • Colleen says:

      Oh man, I can only imagine! I’ve seen the ones in Arizona, but not Key West. They’re different in each location aren’t they?

  7. Karen (K.S.) Jones says:

    Just reading your article today calmed my frazzled writing nerves. You are so right about the magic of sunsets. I watch them every evening from my back porch and have photographed more than my share. I loved the way you noticed the beachcombers, slowly and finally stopping, admiring the sunset. Beautiful! Thanks for sharing a few wonderful passages from the best of writers, too.

    • Colleen says:

      Oh I’m so glad, Karen! We’re all about calming around here. (ha) You watch every evening? Smart lady!