Helen Fisher, PhD

SUN BIRDS: the midwinter flight to love

January is the month of love.  Men and women pour onto the computer, seeking romance with someone who respects them and makes them laugh, someone whom they can confide in and whom they find physically attractive.  Why is January the busiest month in the search for love?  

Well, the holidays certainly remind us of our single-hood.  Friends and family wonder why you are alone at their merry gatherings.  And all the festivities of Christmas, Chanukah and New Year’s Eve can drive home the reality that you are alone.  The weather may contribute, too.  Who doesn’t want to cuddle up with a sweetheart in the dark of winter?   

But the January surge to Match.com, Chemistry.com and probably other dating sites may represent a deeper human craving:  the result of millennia of annual rituals linked to the return of the sun–and with it renewal and rebirth.

Around the world men and women have celebrated the return of the sun in mid December, when the days begin to lengthen, banishing the dark.  We are sun birds, flocking to the light.  The ancient Romans surrounded the Winter Solstice (on December 21st) with festivities to celebrate their sun god: Sol.   In ancient Machu Picchu, Peru, Incan priests ritually tied the sun to a sacred stone so it would not escape—thus honoring their sun god, Inti.  The Saami reindeer herders of northern Finland, Sweden and Norway smeared butter on their doorposts to celebrate the new journey of Beiwe, their sun-goddess of fertility, across the sky.  The Maori of New Zealand marked midwinter with the Sun’s return to his summer-bride.  China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan, Iran, Greece, Mali, England, Ireland: Humankind may have began to celebrate the midwinter return of the sun long before they started marking calendric symbols on their bone tools some 12,000 years ago, perhaps even with the dawn of human consciousness.  

     Sunlight does renew.  It triggers the serotonin system in the brain to elevate mood.  It boosts the dopamine system, bestowing energy and optimism.  It suppressed melatonin production, reducing winter torpor.  And it creates Vitamin D that may counteract depression, improve memory and perception and boost the immune system.

     So like sunflowers, we turn toward the sun.  And as we emerge from the frenzy of the winter holidays, we keenly sense this primal urgency for a new beginning.  And what is more rejuvenating than love?  So let’s light candles to the forces of light and love: may January bring you life’s greatest adventure: a new and enduring romance.  

     Happy New Year, Helen