Whether we're talking about the long hot summer, the winter blahs or the rainy day blues, weather can definitely take us by storm. Weather can rain on our parade or bring out our sunnier dispositions.
"Feeling under the weather," "weathering through," "looking for a silver lining" and "preparing for a rainy day" are mainstays of our vocabulary and our moods, changing only with the season or climate.Ask yourself: Would you be more likely to help a stranded motorist on a sunny or a rainy day? Might weather affect how generous a tip you'd leave in a restaurant? Would the mere presence of sunshine affect how worthwhile you feel your life is?
If you're like most subjects in actual "sunshine" studies, you'll tend to feel more outgoing and confident under blue skies, ready to do good deeds, leave bigger tips and judge yourself more kindly.
Of course, say weather psychologists, we're talking generalities here. Each of us follows our own individual weather-and-season/moods profile that is probably as hard to pin down as personality itself.
"You can't really say that weather is the cause or the cure in specific situations, but it can exacerbate certain tendencies," says Paul Bell, professor of psychology at Colorado State University. "Weather can act as a trigger or an irritant.
"If there's a strong heat wave causing a lot of discomfort or a big snowstorm that traps people inside for days and brings out their cabin fever, these can act as aggravants that heighten other things going on in their lives."
Even though one-to-one correlations are generally ruled out by researchers, the patterns of human reaction are striking enough to suggest a kind of psychological effects profile for each season.
WITH FALL deepening into winter, natural daylight and temperatures decline, and so do our moods.
Cold, dark, gloomy weather keeps us indoors and slows down our bodies and our activities, says Michael A. Persinger, psychologist at the University of Toronto and author of The Weather Matrix and Human Behavior. Even inside the house, we move around less in winter.
"It's not a cold or illness we're talking about here," explains Persinger. "There'll just be some days where we feel we don't have it together. Other days we'll feel snappier. You'll see more of this type of the blues the farther north you go in the U.S. and Canada."
A major problem with seasonal sluggishness is that we really don't make allowances for it in our schools or in the workplace, Persinger adds. We in the Western world are so time-oriented that we don't want to slow down, even if our biorhythms are telling us we should.
"In earlier times, when people were out hunting and felt a bit drowsy, they might miss a shot or something - not a disaster. Today, however, somebody experiencing a slowdown in their natural circadian rhythms could make a mistake and lose his or her job."
Another common winter complaint is cabin fever, especially difficult for older folks. Whereas in summer or fall it's easy to go for walks or car rides, see the flowers and the birds, watch people stroll the streets, winter brings a chronic grayness of reduced stimuli - boredom that may even manifest itself as a physical stress to the heart, explains Persinger.
But it's a myth that cabin fever causes aggression, Rotton asserts. "It would seem reasonable to assume that being cooped up inside all winter long would make people edgy and heighten their aggression. But there are actually fewer arguments or violent acts both outdoors and indoors in winter," he says.
The onset and deepening of the winter doldrums usually follow such a predictable pattern we could graph them, Persinger notes:
By November and December our high fall spirits have begun to taper off. The novelty of the return to school, etc., is giving way to shortening days, reduced sunlight and falling temperatures.
Though the holidays are often cited as a time of depression, most of us actually experience something of a mood lift at this time, though a few do react very negatively, says Persinger. If not for Christmas and New Year's, many of us would find our winter moods settling in a couple of weeks earlier.
Then, the holidays over, there's a sudden plunge toward the mid-January "crash," Persinger continues. Now, for many of us, sleep comes harder, the body slows down, our moods decline. The long winter is psychologically sinking in.
THE LONG, HOT SUMMER
"The long, hot summer is an old cliche, but recent research confirms it's indeed true," Rotton states. "The summer is a peak time for family disturbances and arguments, neighbors shouting at each other over backyard fences, horns honking madly in traffic.
"It's also the season for violence or aggression. Assaults of all kinds, wife and child abuse peak in the hot weather. Only homicide, which is highest around the holidays, is an exception."
Though the added irritations and shortened fuses brought on by 90-degree temperatures and blistering humidity would seem a logical explanation for our often surly summer natures, weather experts caution against jumping too hastily to such a conclusion. Two other summer factors might be as important:
Summer obviously draws people out onto the streets more and into social interaction, opening up greater possibilities for conflict. Plus, high levels of alcohol consumption during hot months might break down our restraints to violence.
"Probably all three of these factors have some validity," Rotton concludes.
Though nobody has good statistics on how the increased use of air conditioning helps us "keep our cool" on sultry days, it would seem that this sort of environmental control helps keep the lid on things in our crowded cities: The long, hot summer becomes, thankfully, the long hot air-conditioned summer.
After all, point out meteorologists, cities are "heat islands," where massed bodies and hot cars, industrial combustion processes, reduced winds due to tall buildings, and trapped heat in brick and asphalt often raise metropolitan thermometers 10-15 degrees above those of the surrounding countryside.
Therefore open spaces, parks and "emerald necklaces" ringing cities with cooling greenery probably serve an important psychological purpose for summertime city dwellers.
Finding a way to retain one's sense of control over things in life is easier said than done, but weather psychologists offer a number of tips:
* AS FALL GIVES WAY to winter, be aware that waning sunlight and falling temperatures may well slow you down, says Colorado's Paul Bell. You could use a new hobby or a new relationship.
* IF A HUGE SNOWSTORM has your city tied up, try to make the best of the situation. Maybe go out and buy a sled and go for a ride.
"When we feel more freedom of action, we handle stress better, says Bell. "It's the restraints of winter (or any period of bad weather) that become a burden at times."
* USE A RAINY DAY as an opportunity to catch up on odd jobs long put off, or to read a book or go to a movie.
* IF YOU'RE A SENIOR CITIZEN, bear in mind that you'll likely be hit harder by the changing seasons - you'll feel the heat more and will have to work harder at conquering those snows, says Persinger.
So put on an old record or rent a memorable movie from your youth. For a change of pace, go to a mall and spend the day there. Persinger points to the high livability of cities like Toronto with large environmentally controlled "contained" spaces, and sees more humanistic, domed cities in our future.
* FOR SENIOR CITIZENS who are not as ambulatory as they once were, TV can become a very important substitute social contact when the weather keeps them indoors.
* WHEN YOU'RE CHECKING your weather sensitivity, bear in mind too that there's usually a lag in reactions to changing weather. So if you're in a lousy mood today, maybe it's due to yesterday's weather, Rotton explains.
* IN VERY HOT WEATHER, take frequent showers and drink a lot of fluids but not alcohol, which can aggravate thirst problems, Rotton advises. And don't rely solely on your sense of thirst as a guide - you can become pretty dehydrated and irritable before your body lets you know you need some liquid.
* BY CONSERVTIVE ESTIMATES, about 10 percent of us show year-round mood swings in response to the seasons, dramatic enough for others to notice, Rotton adds.
* BY ALL MEANS, try to enjoy the weather whenever possible. Remember, most weather patterns last only a couple of days. And feel free to use weather in that most ancient, salutary fashion:
Like fate, bad luck or any other force larger than ourselves, weather makes a convenient scapegoat for those occasional misfortunes, helping us to maintain that inner sunshine.