Home News Tips for Learning to Appreciate Winter – Arthur C. Brooks

Tips for Learning to Appreciate Winter – Arthur C. Brooks

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November 20, 2021 8:54 AM

For several years, the number of Americans who moved has decreased. But as remote working has ceased to be a necessity in the early days of the pandemic and has become an unexpected boon for workers, this trend could reverse. According to the Pew research center, 22 percent of Americans moved or know someone who did during the pandemic. According to another poll, a whopping 56 percent plan to do so in 2021.

The reasons for moving are many, such as the distance from the family (to reduce it … or increase it!) Or the too high costs and the maddening traffic of the big cities. And then there is the climate. As I write, I look out of the window on a gray autumn morning in Boston, and I know very well the darkness that awaits me. Those living in the Northern Hemisphere face a long, cold, dark winter, and might think this is the right time to look for a sunnier place to live. Some fast-growing cities, for example in South Carolina and Texas, want you to believe that this will make you happier.

In itself it wouldn’t be such a bizarre reason to move. Even before the pandemic, 11 percent of Americans said they moved at least once in their life in search of a better climate. And many studies show that the sun and heat can actually improve mood. But on balance, traveling because you love the sun is probably not worth the money and time you will spend, not to mention the inconvenience on a personal level. There are better strategies for being happier, even if you live in a dark and gloomy place.

Climate and mood
It is undeniable that sunlight and happiness are linked. Researchers have long identified what they call “seasonal worsening of psychiatric symptoms”: when the weather becomes colder and grayer, mood worsens and anxiety increases. In a 1983 experiment, a sample of people were asked to rate their mood and happiness under different weather conditions. Both were better on sunny days than on rainy ones.

When John Denver sings “Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy”, he is literally right. Whenever the Sun comes in contact with our skin it contributes to the increase of our levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that improves mood. Some people develop so-called Seasonal Affective Disorder (Sad), a strong negative reaction to lack of sunlight that affects up to 9.7 percent of the population, especially in higher latitudes and during the winter months.

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Being outside at about 14 degrees is the ideal condition for having a positive mood

In addition to experiencing a serotonin deficiency, SAD sufferers appear to be particularly vulnerable to the way darkness disturbs their circadian rhythms and disrupts sleep cycles by reducing the sense of well-being.
Happiness is also affected by temperature. In a 2013 study, participants were exposed to different temperatures and it was found that being outdoors at around 14 degrees is the ideal condition for having a positive mood, while colder or warmer temperatures were associated with a feeling of inferior well-being.

It could be concluded that the secret to happiness is to move to a place like Palo Alto, California, a place that is almost always sunny and with a mild climate. But it would be a hasty conclusion. A temperate climate all year round is not always the best solution. Those who live constantly in the heat, in the autumn and winter months tend to be happier than those who spend them in the cold. But in the spring the situation is reversed. Those who claim they “love the change of season” are probably not saying they enjoy digging in the snow to get the car out, but rather that their happiness increases dramatically when the bad weather turns to good.

Decreasing effectiveness
And then, of course, there is the problem of homeostasis. Humans usually aren’t able to enjoy something for very long, but they quickly get used to it and return to standard happiness levels. Some research indicates that after moving the excitement to the temperate climate will wear off in a relatively short period, just like with other happiness-inducing phenomena (including marriage or earning a lot of money).

If moving to the heat brings marginal and temporary benefits, why is it such a seductive idea? Apparently, we tend to think that the climate has a greater influence on our happiness than it actually is. In a study from the 1990s that has now become classic, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman and co-author David Schkade asked the inhabitants of the Midwest (which includes some northeastern areas of the United States) and those of California to evaluate the degree satisfaction of their own life and to do the same with that of those who lived in the other region. The self-ratings were the same, but both groups thought Californians were happier than those living in the Midwest, particularly because of the weather. The researchers concluded that this mismatch was confirmation of what is called the “focus illusion”: the thought that, in order to be happy, a glaring difference such as a favorable climate counts more than other less visible factors, such as friendships and cordial relationships. with other people.

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The “bad” weather can turn into good weather if it becomes an excuse to have fun

Hot spots are great. But unless you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, it’s probably not worth moving there for that reason alone. If you come from a more temperate place you will miss the changing of the seasons, what you will gain in terms of well-being will be less than you imagine, and that brief flicker of happiness will vanish too quickly. Conversely, depending on where you choose to live, your happiness could be drained relentlessly by high taxes and the cost of housing. I’m not saying nobody should live in Austin or Palo Alto, but I’m pretty sure the main reason shouldn’t be looking for the sun.

You will be happier if you manage to achieve the same goal for a limited period of time, particularly during the dark winter months. A study shows that frequent, short breaks – if you can afford them – are a good strategy for increasing overall well-being, because they bypass the adaptation problem. We already know that the mood of those who live in colder latitudes improves with the arrival of spring: with short holidays in sunny places it is possible to simulate this effect several times during the year (although then, of course, you have to go home) .

Instead of chasing the climate you love, another solution is to appreciate what you live in. My wife, who is originally from Spain, made a commitment to accept the gloomy climate of Syracuse, the city in upstate New York that we moved to at one point, and she ended up loving it. Likewise, “bad” weather can turn into good weather if it becomes an excuse to have fun. I met a family who went to winter camp in the northernmost part of upstate New York, and it seemed a little excessive to me. But cross-country skiing is a good way to pass the time, and it’s impossible to do in Miami.

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If all other attempts fail, you may simply give up and decide to stop complaining. I’ve lived in places full of sunshine (Boca Raton, Santa Monica, Barcelona) and other grays (Seattle, upstate New York) to more or less equal degrees and have been keeping an accurate track of my moments of happiness for decades. While it’s easy to complain about it, the weather hasn’t systematically affected my well-being. Faced with the evidence of the data, I simply stopped complaining about the Boston winters, and that helped me appreciate them more. Rather, I focus on what I love and what brought me here, like teaching in college.

Many of the seemingly sensible ideas that drive us to chase the sun to achieve happiness fail if we examine them carefully. In addition to the practical problems already listed, there is also a philosophical one: to assume that a little sadness is negative and should be banned. A full life has sunny days and other rainy days, and it’s all part of the experience. No one says this better than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his poem The rainy day:

Stand still, sad heart! And stop complaining
Behind the clouds the sun still shines
Your destiny is everyone’s destiny
A little rain has to fall in life
Some days must be dark and gloomy.

The sun will come back. Meanwhile, fully live in the rain.

(Translation by Davide Musso)

This article was published on the site of the US monthly The Atlantic.


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