I have been fascinated to watch how, at about 5:30 p.m. each evening, a steady stream of cars and bicyclists heads down the dirt road in front of my house to watch the sunset. I first noticed it as I was walking down the road myself, camera in hand, not exactly sure where I was going. To reach the sweet spot, the Ticos must wade through a swampy river thigh high and climb a small hill, before descending onto a small beach where the currents go in a multitude of directions as in riptide. The area is a tiny cove surrounded by cliffs on one on each side, the sounds of howling monkeys occasionally heard over the strong sounds of the alternating currents. You have to really want to see the sunset to go there. It is not on any map I have seen.
My visits have not disappointed. The yellow orb is often streaked with red clouds. But the effect on the water and sky is what really captures my attention. The blue water turns a light purple, and mirrors back the orange and yellow orb when the tide goes out. The sky is a riot of warm colors on the color wheel, all reflected in the shallow water when it recedes.
So why do the Ticos, make sure they catch the sunset at the end of the day? By the way, I noticed this phenomenon in Mexico, too. Cars would pull over no matter where they were going and whole families would run out to the beach to watch the pueste de sol. Those prepared for it, like the Ticos here, heighten the experience by swimming in the ocean as the sun sets. The only place I notice it as a regular thing in the US is in Key West, but that’s not really part of the US, now is it. From my experience, having a house with a deck that has a stunning view of the sunset up in the mountains, I am usually the only one watching the sunset. As an experiment, I have walked around to the condos near my house that all have decks facing west, and I rarely see anyone watching the sunset. Yet here in Central America, the place with the happiest people on Earth, it is not to be missed.
In The Journal of Environmental Psychology, Jei Wei Zhang concludes: “Engagement with natural beauty moderates the positive relation between connectedness with nature and psychological well-being.” Well-being was highest for those that connect with nature and perceive natural beauty. Here we go again. Tacos are clearly perceiving natural beauty from connecting with nature from the sunset and they are the happiest people on Earth. Americans rank 16th in terms of subjective well-being, and I assume that’s with all the pharmaceuticals doled out to its citizens. It makes me wonder if taking the time to find a nice spot to watch the sunset would improve American’s subjective well-being or at least enhance the benefits of the pharmaceuticals.
It turns out sunsets have other benefits. The same author in the March 2014 edition of the same journal entitled: “An occasion for unselfing: Beautiful nature leads to prosociality”, found that spending time in nature led to people becoming more caring of others, more philanthropic. My personal experience here in Costa Rica is that is true. Their homes are oriented to be outside. The kitchen, the center of the home, is outside in a courtyard. The courtyards have beautiful flowers. Moreover, I have not been to a single restaurant that was not open air. Last night, after dinner, the family that owned the restaurant started a fire in front of the restaurant, near the beach and began cooking pork and sitting around near the fire outside in front of their home and restaurant as they closed the restaurant. They were working and could not see the sunset, but they clearly enjoyed natural beauty through the fire near the beach, not to mention the familial bonding. And lo and behold, the people are nice. It is considered rude to pass someone without saying, “Hola” or “Buena dias”. Every single camerera (waitress) has helped me with my Spanish with total patience no matter how busy the restaurant.
And if you have insomnia, try watching the sunset instead of popping an ambien. According to the August 2014 edition of Biology Today, “we find that after exposure to only natural light, the internal circadian clock synchronizes to solar time such that the beginning of the internal biological night occurs at sunset and the end of the internal biological night occurs before wake time just after sunrise.”
The same study found Americans have ruined their circadian rhythms by looking at artificial light at night. Reading from kindles and iPads and watching TV has removed us from nature (and sunsets). Supposedly, the best sleep is between 10:00 p.m. and 2:00 a.m. Speaking for myself, I’m deep into a book on my kindle or the news on my iPad at 10:00 p.m.
When I get home, I’m going to look for the closest place to watch the sunset. And my kindle is off at 10:00. Why? Because I have loved the early mornings here in Sámara. They are the most productive hours of my day. I figure out what I’m going to paint. I edit my photos. And I notice what I have learned during my time of unlimited freedom.