Jul 18, 2011

Weather Report

Back in “Clichés are the funnies things” I mentioned the movie “Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis.”  In this hilarious movie, as I said, a post office administrator is transferred from a post in the South of France to a position in the North.  Everyone around him in the South, including his wife, cannot even imagine what it is like all the way up there, so cold, so desolate.  Plus, in that environment, the people must be just awful, made drunken and perhaps dangerous by the hostile climate.  The inhabitants of Nord-Pas-de-Calais are wearing tee shirts and romping around outside when the guy from the South arrives wearing a down jacket, with a wool scarf that his wife has lovingly wrapped around his neck.  He keeps it there to keep the wife guessing about his life in the North.

The way people compete and brag about weather.  Why is it so important to them to have the “best” weather?  You decide to move to some town like Minneapolis, and everyone asks if you have thought about the weather and how it might be to live in the North Pole.  Nah, you didn’t think about it; you thought it was just like New Orleans up there.  Last week in Sweden the weather had its ups and downs.  Some days were sunny, others cloudy and rainy.  I didn’t come to Sweden for the weather anyway, and we oriented our activities according to what the rain or the sun offered us.  The rain hurried along the Chanterelle mushrooms and we collected a basketful, then sautéed them over a fire one evening when the weather was fine.

Two of the times that stand out in my life when I was uncomfortably cold both occurred in France.  One was in Paris in June, in the 1980s.  I had come from Michigan where it had been sunny and very warm.  Paris was rainy and cold and I didn’t have the right clothes for the weather, so I was chronically freezing.  I didn’t have enough money to buy new clothes.  Another time was on sabbatical in Aix-en-Provence, the South of France.  The wind in the winter was so icy and sharp, and I was again so unprepared, that I ended up buying two new winter coats.

As you can imagine, on the thermometer, neither Paris nor Aix can ”top” – in the sense of lowest temperature – places that I have lived such as Madison, Wisconsin and Ann Arbor, Michigan.  But a thermometer does not measure the experience of weather.  The experience of weather is a combination of habit, attitude, and pragmatism.  If you would just put on a pair of socks, a coat or a hat, dammit, you would be lots less whiney.  When riding bikes in colder weather, gloves are a good idea.  So much has to do with clothes, and if you do not want to buy the new, cool, textiles, then you should be sure to live in a warmer clime.

The intense comparisons of weather lead one to a simple and testable hypothesis: that weather has a huge impact on mood and well-being.  It is true that extreme hot temperatures are associated with a greater incidence of aggressive behavior in man and animal and there is a link between day length and seasonal affect disorder.  But otherwise, almost no study shows the expected relationship between weather and how people are feeling.  For example, people in California are not happier than people in Maine.  One of the only careful studies I know on this topic was conducted in Barbara Fredrickon’s lab when she was at the University of Michigan.  That study compared inhabitants of Ann Arbor, Michgan with those of Phoenix, Arizona.  Turns out that the only positive effect of good weather was for the Michiganders and only in the spring as the weather went from bad to good, and this effect was indeed only really significant for people who spent a lot of time outside.   This makes sense to me.  It has been raining and cold for a while, and now it isn’t, so you get a positive affect boost.  But only if you are outside in the middle of it.  If the good weather is stable, then it becomes a background factor.

There is no evidence that people know about or believe Barb’s findings.  I think that they do believe that they are happy because they live wherever, in Phoenix, for instance.  But perhaps this belief itself is doing all of the work.  Perhaps when you ask someone in San Diego if the weather in their town is an important direct cause of their happiness, and the weather is in fact good, then they say yes.  But it might not be true.  If you instead measure the weather and ask them how good a mood they are in, there may be no such relationship.  And why not?  If the link between weather and good mood is hard to find, this could be because other things are much more important.  Maybe the fact that you do not have to commute or that your wife also has a job, or that your kids’ schools are terrific have a greater impact on your good mood or your well-being.

Another possibility is that the relationship between weather and mood is indirect and that the thing in between has to do with you doing what you want to do.  Perhaps you want to play golf every day.  Living in upstate New York will not help you realize this desire.  My family likes x-country and downhill skiing, and we do not have the time to drive an hour and a half to do so.  We like the idea of going skiing five minutes away, or even on a bike path.  So, winter with snow is fine for us.  A guy from Trinidad who was living in the North of the US once told me “seasons are overrated,” but I think they are not for people who like to do things that they can only do in fall and winter.  And a lot of this is just pure upbringing. 

I asked the partner of a friend of mine, who had moved from California (and spent quite a bit of time in Hawaii), how she handled the winters in Madison, WI, where she had lived for several years.   She smiled and said, “these days the choice of winter boots is fantastic.  I just changed the way I stay in style.” 

Call me strange if you want, but I like this too.  I like to change my wardrobe during the year, four times is good; I like the variability.  I also want a particular weather to accompany Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.  Let me have it that way.

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