In the next few weeks, with any luck, people will begin straggling out of their homes, dazed by the light and unsure of whether to trust the promise of spring. Survivors from a long, harrowing war. For some, winter is so psychologically devastating that spring is almost a full resurrection. For most of us around these parts, I imagine, spring will be welcomed this year more than ever, like a dear friend who was lost and presumed dead.
But what really is the relationship between happiness and weather? We’ve all heard of, and quite possibly experienced, Seasonal Affective Disorder – when you just can’t face getting out of bed only to be met by yet another grey and disheartening sky. But there may be a difference between how weather affects our mood and how it affects the quality of our lives more generally. Consider two different though similar views on the relationship between human well-being and intemperate weather:
The first is from Henry Miller, who complained bitterly about the effects of extreme weather:
why do people live in outlandish climates in the temperate zones, as they are miscalled? Because people are naturally idiots, naturally sluggards, naturally cowards. Until I was about ten years old I never realized that there were “warm” countries, places where you didn’t have to sweat for a living, nor shiver and pretend that it was tonic and exhilarating. Wherever there is cold there are people who work themselves to the bone and when they produce young they preach the gospel of work – which is nothing, at bottom, but the doctrine of inertia.
Miller seems to think that the majority of humans can’t possibly be at their best in cold weather. It saps any potential for feeling really alive and motivated, reducing us to getting through the day, postponing all living until work (or winter) is done – which is never (and in the case of winter, far too long). His view is that the entire Protestant work ethic was developed as an excuse for the inertia that sets in when one lives with the cold.
Miller also wrote that humans learn very well how to protect themselves from the cold, so that we may “rot in comfort”. And this represents his general attitude towards human civilization: rather than pushing ourselves to grow, we prefer, if given the chance, to hunker down and ride it out safely. We keep ourselves entertained and comfortable, and thus lose sight of all the amazing possibilities life might otherwise offer us. Bad weather is just an excuse for this ‘natural’ attitude, which we might be pushed to overcome were we outside in a t-shirt more often, exposed to the natural world, to interaction with other humans, and to the unknown and unfamiliar – something that we rarely find in our warm living rooms.
Friedrich Nietzsche shares this critique of the human love of safety and comfort. Yet he feels rather differently about cold and extreme climates. For Nietzsche the worst enemy of human intellectual and psychological growth is indeed the instinct to self-preservation, but a clear sign of this is the human desire to avoid cold, harsh climates. What is different with Nietzsche is that he happens to be one of those who genuinely believed that the cold weather is tonic and exhilarating. Nietzsche loved to climb mountains, breathing the thin, brisk air and challenging both body and mind. For him, to face the harshest elements and the greatest extremes was a way to remain alive and in contact with what drives away the deadening comfort of a safe and sheltered life.
So what should we take from these discussions? If we accept Miller’s view that we use the cold weather as an excuse for mediocrity, his own example shows us that this need not be the case. After all, he lived through countless New York City winters and his books are among the most vibrant and intellectually stimulating that I have read.
What made Miller an exception to his own rule is not entirely clear: natural intelligence and prophetic vision, landing in the right time and place, having learned not to take himself too seriously – all these are possibilities. But for much of his early life, he didn’t write. Instead he seems to have intentionally positioned himself on the edge of sanity and survival, in order to live intensely and observe the grittiest and most extreme forms of life around him. Misery, like the cold, can cause us to retreat behind our picket fences. But life at the extremes, if we care to come outside and inspect it, just might be where something like the truth lies.
As the spring weather finally arrives our moods will inevitably brighten and our spines soften, and this is a cause for celebration. But we might do well to remember not to lose ourselves in pure enjoyment and the comfort of the warm air, but rather to use the opportunity for a renewed sense of growth and discovery. And next winter, may we remember to find our inspiration not by the fireside, but by the very act of embracing every minute of this painful but exhilarating climate that humans were mad enough to populate.