Seize the Season While It Lasts

“It’s too cold,” cried the Midwest and Northeast.

“It’s too hot,” bemoaned the South.

All was quieter on the western front. At least that’s what’s implied by a 2013 survey in which 66 percent of respondents who lived in the American West claimed to like their region’s weather. Of those in the dissatisfied minority, about a quarter said their surroundings were too rainy, while more than a third found them too dry.

But enough complaining, Americans. Autumn has almost arrived, so many of us should be pleased; the survey showed that 29 percent indicated fall as their favorite season.

Last season, summer came in second place for the respondents’ favoritism, with a quarter of them saying so. Such opinions differed according to age, however, as younger people–18 to 34 years old–could seemingly stand the heat more than their older counterparts. Thirty-seven percent of those aged 55 and above confessed their love for springtime.

That said, the pool of people surveyed may actually be ageist–seasonally speaking. Old man winter lost the popularity poll, with only seven percent of respondents favoring his frosty ways as compared to his fresher, or hotter, competitors. Even though many of us will welcome the crisp fall atmosphere with delight, we may not care so much for winter’s unattractively freezing gusts or icy shards.

With data suggesting such widespread disdain for extreme weather conditions, does that mean the dissatisfied easterners, midwesterners, and southerners should pack up their bags to head westward in order to live happily ever after?

The western frontier, with its supposed ideal climate, often looms as a conceptual means of escape from the unfriendly forecasts that plague other parts of the country. The sentiment has been expressed in canonical songs where singers recite their yearning to escape from the grey skies and brown leaves or frolic freely and easily under the warm California sun.

Photo courtesy of Mark Fischer.

Lyrics aside, I feel that in real life the idea of fleeing to the west coast or California resonates strongly amongst northeasterners. Here in New York at least, in reaction to facing the stifling weeks of intense summer heat, I’ve heard the sentence, “I really like the weather in San Francisco,” announced countless times. Months later, dealing with the extensive stretches of shivering and hibernating through the cold will triggers utterances like, “I had dreamed of going to college in California,” that may be followed by self-diagnoses of SAD (seasonal affective disorder) from the lack of light during the dreary daytime.

Are residents really all so sad from SAD by living in places that get so chilly? The notion of SAD is about three decades old, BBC reports, and it describes a seasonally induced depression related to an absence of light. A person’s sex drive, sleep patterns, appetite, mood, and activity levels are thus affected.

Psychiatrist Norman Rosenthal first used the term when he co-wrote a 1984 paper about people’s moods during winter months. It was after he had moved from South Africa to the northeastern United States and noticed the prevalent gloominess during that time of year.

Rosenthal admitted that he chose the moody-sounding acronym partially to get media traction, which did prove successful. While an increase of people proclaimed to suffer from SAD after the news of the clinical condition spread, experts argue that the disorder is frequently misused. They point out that while SAD does exist, research shows that it is not as widespread as many perceive.

Moreover, in Iceland, where winters are long and dark, there are remarkably low levels of SAD. These statistics seemed quite surprising to researchers in a 1993 study that analyzed this data.

Photo courtesy of Emmanuel Milou.

While sunshine may be scant there during winters–and the perpetual danger of natural disasters threatens the population’s safety–Iceland is noted as being one of the happiest countries on Earth. Factors like low crime rates, high quality of health care, and a sense of societal cooperation and community between inhabitants to endure the climactic conditions are noted. The Atlantic reports that Icelanders may even exhibit a type of hereditary resistance to SAD. Perhaps Iceland’s case supports the psychology findings that the effects of daily weather on people’s moods are actually rather minor.

I can’t say I’ve ever overheard my dissatisfied peers talking about moving up to Iceland when things get rough. In any case, in terms of perceiving places like California as paradise, while science has also shown that sunshine positively affects the mood, it’s still just a small factor in a person’s overall life satisfaction. California dreaming may ultimately be a “focusing illusion,” as psychologist Daniel Kahneman said, a short-term thought that doesn’t consider the long-lasting consequences.

Feelings change–as do seasons in many places. While it’s more important to determine, strive for, and achieve our long-term life goals than focus on the pleasant or unpleasant weather, these more meaningful factors take many years of trying, learning, and reflecting to understand or realize. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still seize the days of fall while they last and indulge in whatever favored outdoor activities, seasonal harvests, or garment donning that will elevate our mental states in the near future.

Feature photo courtesy of Ralph Hockens.