We’ve reached that time of year: The afternoon sunsets are upon us.
With the end of daylight saving time this week, clocks in most of the United States rolled back an hour, ushering in months of early sunsets. On Sunday in Boston, the sun set at 4:29 p.m. compared to 5:31 p.m. on Saturday, according to the National Weather Service.
Steve Butterfield, 39, who lives in Augusta, Maine, said he was anticipating that day with a sense of dread.
“I’m aware of this day every year,” said Butterfield, a former member of the Maine House of Representatives. “Your energy levels just crater. It’s almost like the sun goes down and my brain shuts down with it. It’s like, ‘Oh the sun’s down, time for dinner and getting ready for bed.’ And then you realize it’s 4:30 in the afternoon.”
It’s not just a general feeling of apprehension that can come with shortened days. Some experience a type of depression in the fall and winter months called seasonal affective disorder, though it’s largely an issue for people who already have depression or a predisposition to it, said Dr. Nassir Ghaemi, a psychiatrist and the director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Center.
But even for those who don’t experience seasonal depression, the darkness can still leave people feeling lethargic, said Ghaemi.
“For everybody in the general population, the loss of light causes a natural decline in energy, so they become more sluggish,” Ghaemi said. “And that’s worse in areas where there’s less light.”
It’s something acutely felt by New Englanders. For those in Eastern Standard Time and particularly in the Northeast, sunsets come even earlier than some other parts of the country, said Andrew Loconto, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.
“Here in the Northeast in the eastern time zone, we see some of the earlier sunsets now compared to areas, say, across Virginia, North Carolina, sort of in the western and southern part of the time zone,” Loconto said. “Those areas see sunset a little later. Basically the further northeast in a time zone that one is, they’ll see earlier sunsets than areas further south and west in the time zone.”
The change is occurring as the country prepares to enter another pandemic winter. With vaccinations available, the outlook is more optimistic this year, but worries persist about infection rates as people congregate inside. The lack of sunlight adds another layer to the pandemic, which has resulted in higher percentages of Americans struggling with mental health issues.
“The pandemic is sort of like starting with a handicap in the sense that we’re already starting with a population that has much higher depression rates than is usually the case,” Ghaemi said. “And then we’re going to go into a season with less light, which naturally increases the depression rate even more.”
But with the earlier sunsets come earlier sunrises. On Sunday, the sun rose in Boston at 6:25 a.m., compared to 7:24 a.m. the day before. For some, that’s a welcome shift.
Judson Pierce, who lives in Arlington, said he sees health benefits to the change in daylight.
“I think it depends on how people view the dark,” Pierce, 48, said. “I view it as a restful state of mind and quieter, and I think it keeps my heart rate lower. And the day just seems busier and more alive and more active.”
Each year we turn the clocks back, renewed focus turns to efforts to keep daylight saving time year-round. A number of lawmakers, including Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, have been trying to address it for years, introducing legislation that would make daylight saving time permanent.
“We should make Daylight Saving Time permanent and stop sacrificing our sunshine,” Markey tweeted on Sunday.
A group of bipartisan senators in March reintroduced the Sunshine Protection Act, which would end the practice of changing the clocks on the second Sunday in March and the first Sunday in November each year.
Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a cosponsor of the bill, referenced the legislation ahead of the time change on Sunday, saying in a statement that “each November, the practice of ‘falling back’ an hour disrupts our lives and robs us of daylight hours.”
Whitehouse noted that over the past four years, 19 states have passed legislation or resolutions that would implement year-round daylight saving time, but a change in federal statute is required before they can be adopted. In the statement, Whitehouse cited economic and public health benefits for reasons why daylight standard time should become permanent.
“Spending more standard work hours in sunlight would reduce rates of seasonal depression,” the statement said. “Americans exercise more frequently during Daylight Saving Time, reducing the risk of stroke and heart problems. Research also suggests that the extra hour of afternoon sun leads to fewer car accidents and evening robberies.”
Brandon Davis, 26, who lives in South Easton, said he “totally supports” efforts to reform daylight saving time. For him, the earlier sunsets bring a “feeling of dread,” he said — and an unwelcome change in routine.
“That hour of daylight is the difference between being able to take a walk after work and play with my daughter outside,” Davis said. “I made a joke, I was like, ‘it’s sort of like an orientation day for seasonal depression.’”