Something happens to the air when the seasons change around this time of year, and I’m not just talking about spring’s breezes shifting into summer’s sweltering heat. It’s like every moment is marked with an added sense of suspense and anticipation, as if a groundbreaking event could happen any second. That’s especially true when it comes to love. Falling for someone is always nice, but when it happens in the summer, it feels even more magical.
The desire for a seasonal romance is constantly fueled by pop culture, which teaches us through movies like Grease and Dirty Dancing that love blossoming under the summer sun can overcome almost anything—social inequalities, friends who don’t get along, even opposite personalities—except the season’s end. But where does the idea of summer love come from? Pop culture isn’t the source of our infatuation; it merely borrows from a theme that runs deep within us already. There are actual physical and social drives behind high-intensity flings during high temperatures.
More Sunlight Means More Hormones
I have a friend in the throes of a summer romance right now. She talks and thinks about the guy nonstop, and it drives her crazy when they’re apart during the workday. Their courtship was brief, sidestepping the usual “I’ll call you laters” and diving headfirst into a full-fledged relationship. That’s partly because of their electric compatibility and partly because, like all truly memorable summer loves, theirs has an expiration date. (He’s moving in a few months.) The end in sight makes their time together even more pressing—and even more painful when it can’t happen for whatever reason. “It’s like a drug,” she explained to me one day, lamenting the hours she had to spend without him. “It’s like that Nina Simone song that goes, ‘Waiting for you to come home and turn me on,’ like she’s almost dead without her man.”
That might sound extreme, but anyone who’s crushed hard knows the emotional crash of being away from that special someone. The feeling is exaggerated even more in the summer, thanks to our brains’ hormonal reaction to increased daylight hours. Mood, hunger, thirst, sexual desire, and many other emotional drives come from certain hormones, the release of which is controlled by an area of the brain called the hypothalamus. It’s activated by light hitting the eyes; when that happens, the hypothalamus sends out hormones that, among other things, make us feel more lovey-dovey than usual.
The hormone dopamine is responsible for the euphoric, intoxicated feeling we get when we like someone new. Daylight also triggers the hypothalamus to produce vasopressin and oxytocin, two hormones associated with attachment and cuddly affection. The combination of these three could explain why summer romances are a heady mix of the passion associated with flings and the emotional bond that comes with longer-term partnerships. The extra daylight in the summertime increases production of all of these hormones—so when fall for someone from June to August, we fall hard.
Other chemical occurrences that sunlight triggers within the body probably contribute to the summer-romance predilection as well. Studies show that testosterone, a hormone involved in our sex drive, hits a peak during the summer. Gives “hot summer nights” a whole new meaning, doesn’t it? And not only are people more lustful because of hormones, but they’re also more energetic. Light encourages serotonin production, the hormone that makes us feel happy and content, and discourages melatonin release, the sleep-inducing hormone. Basically, all this means that the surge of energy, the high spirits, and the heightened libido we experience on hot summer days (and nights) aren’t just figments of our imaginations. The seasonal bodily changes that take place create the perfect situation for our hearts to rule over our heads, if only for a few months.
The Adult’s Version of Summer Vacation
Hormonal fluctuations might be somewhat responsible for our obsession with summer love, but the societal obsession with summer in general plays a part, too. As schoolkids, we looked forward to those three months of vacation more than anything else because they represented unadulterated freedom and fun. Getting older means the loss of summer vacation, but we still hold on to the season’s affiliation with good times. It’s just that what constitutes a good time becomes more, um, mature as we get older as well. Adults tend to let their hair down during breaks; who doesn’t act a little wilder on vacation? We don’t get three months off anymore, but we still crave the temporary pause from real-world rules that summer vacation used to bring. Instead, we take the subsequent thrills where we can get them.
Plus, as you’ve no doubt noticed, high temperatures have an inverse effect on the amount of skin covered up by clothes. When the sun’s at its most potent, hemlines go up, sleeves become nonexistent, and our bodies sweat in response to the heat, thus releasing more pheromones—chemicals that prompt attraction—into the air than usual. See, it all goes back to the chemicals; clearly, summer love is a force beyond our control.
I suspect that the need to break free from monotonous everyday life when given a chance, combined with the sun’s stimulating effects on the hormones that fuel fervor and affection, is what makes summer ripe for flings and fleeting, passionate love affairs. It’s why movies like Grease and Dirty Dancing are so compelling and timeless. It’s why there’s an extra spring in our steps on particularly nice days. It’s why everyone around us seemingly falls in love at the drop of a hat around this time. And it’s why we have trouble concentrating at work, daydreaming about what summer nights might bring, instead of writing and researching story assignments. (Hypothetically speaking, of course.) I say it’s time to listen to our bodies and take summer by storm—so what are you doing reading this? Go forth into the sunshine and let your hormones guide you toward a summer love worthy of its own movie.