Warm Winters Won’t Make You Happier
Despite what some climate change apologists might have you think.
Does everything actually suck right now? Or is it just the end of January?
It can be difficult to tell. We’re officially in the thick of what Americans consider to be the worst time of year, when complaining about the weather is an acceptable salutation and feeling “blah” is the basic condition of being alive. Even setting aside seasonal affective disorder — a condition linked to limited daylight, and thus not directly affected by climate change — studies have shown that people have a lower quality diet in the winter, and body weight usually reaches its peak this time of year. Physical activity, which is also important for mental health, dips as the weather gets worse, and research has even shown that people with Alzheimer’s disease experience more severe symptoms when the planet is tilted away from the sun.
Some have taken these winter blues as an opportunity to question the basic premise that climate change is bad. “The chief benefits of global warming” include “fewer winter deaths” and lower heating bills, Matt Ridley argued in The Spectator in 2013. Former President Donald Trump even has a quasi-annual tradition of tweeting something like “Wouldn’t be bad to have a little of that good old fashioned Global Warming right now!” during cold snaps this time of year.
Winter is, in fact, warming faster than any other season in the United States, with some parts of the country on track to lose over a month of freezing days as soon as 2050. Even if you do believe — correctly — that climate change is a global catastrophe, unless you’re a skier or snowboarder, this might sound like a good thing. So, as sacrilegious as it feels to ask, could a warmer planet make us healthier in the wintertime?
When I asked Leslie Davenport, a climate psychology educator at the California Institute of Integral Studies, if she expected milder winters to impact people psychologically, she answered immediately. “Oh, one hundred percent!,” she told me. That doesn’t mean she thinks the impact will be positive. She said she has heard people “who are a little more on the climate denial end of things” make comments like “this is great, it used to be so cold and now I can go golfing,” she told me, but “I can’t honestly call that an upside.”
Far more often, Davenport said she hears from people experiencing a sense of “unsettling” as they notice winter isn’t as cold or as snowy as they remember it being. Some might even express a feeling of “solastalgia,” a neologism that describes the sense of displacement or nostalgia that arises when a place changes environmentally. “Whether it’s the loss of snow, or areas that are drier or hotter or wetter, it is like, ‘Well, this is not the town I grew up in or the place I chose to move to because it has changed so much,’” Davenport said.
While there might be an abstract appeal to the Los Angelesification of winter nationwide, it would be a mistake to count on climate change making the season “better.” Quite the opposite, actually — warmer winters could make winter much worse, especially for those living in midlatitude cities like New York, London, or Amsterdam. “I have observed, in my travels and my research and in talking to people, that it is often much easier and more pleasant to cope with winter weather that is slightly below freezing consistently than weather that is slightly above freezing consistently,” Kari Leibowitz, a health psychologist who is working on a book about winter mindsets, told me.
Cold temperatures can actually improve our lives in several ways, Leibowitz argued. For one thing, snowfall “opens up a whole bunch of winter opportunities” like sledding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, and all those winter sports that get people out of the house. That helps combat some of the bluesiness that otherwise comes from moping around indoors when it’s too gray and rainy to do anything active. Frozen lakes offer opportunities for skating and hockey, plus “there’s also a lot of beauty and intrigue in ice — you know, icicles and frozen rainstorms,” Leibowitz went on.
Snow, meanwhile, “reflects the light, so it makes the darkness of winter feel much, much brighter,” Leibowitz said. “And most people think it’s really beautiful — it’s clean and fresh and it smells good.”
Of course, winter weather can be dangerous, too, but “places that are colder and have really frozen winters have good infrastructure for dealing with that, and houses tend to be better insulated and heated more efficiently,” Leibowitz said. Bad winter weather can also give us much-needed permission to rest.
While there are certain places further in the south, such as Atlanta, where winter might genuinely become more pleasant as the planet warms, “there are far more places where the end of winter is just going to mean places are dark and wet,” without the upsides that come with the snow and freezing temperatures, Leibowitz stressed.
Michael Varnum, the head of the Culture and Ecology Laboratory at Arizona State University and a specialist in seasonal psychology, did find one positive. “Nobody likes to feel down, or to look at their waistline and see it’s grown,” he told me. “So potentially, there could be some upsides there.”
Naturally, much of how you feel about winter will depend on the climate where you live. In general, though, “we are somewhat more insulated from the changes in temperature that come with the seasons than we were, say, 10,000 years ago or even a couple hundred years ago,” Varnum said. Feelings of climate anxiety and distress tend to be highest in Indigenous communities in or near the Arctic, where the cold weather is a part of cultural identity and inheritance. Likewise, Davenport told me, in “places where there tends to be a lot of snow” like Japan or Finland, “there’s talk about things like ‘winter grief,’” where a milder winter makes it so that “certain rituals or holidays that have been planned in the past can’t happen anymore or as consistently.”
Many Americans, too, lose a sense of themselves when winter gets milder. “It’s what a lot of us love about living here: our winters,” Erich Osterberg, a Dartmouth climate scientist, told The New Hampshire Bulletin in 2022. “It’s more than changes to the climate,” he added, “it’s changes to our livelihood and our culture.” I encountered similar comments from Minnesotans when I was looking into how an unseasonably dry winter is imperiling this year’s cross country ski season: “Spiritually, this is terrible,” Claire Wilson, the executive director of Minneapolis’ Loppet Foundation, recently told the Star Tribune.
Winter doesn’t have to be dreaded, Leibowitz said — much of one’s enjoyment of the season comes down to mindset. But it does seem to matter that winter is actually, well, wintery, too. Whether that’s a question of our evolutionary seasonal biology (winter appears to be an important trigger for the human reproductive cycle, for one thing), or a matter of our cultural practices, or something as simple as snow being more fun than rain, it’s hard to make the case that warming winters will leave us better off.
“If you want me to find the psychological upside of anything, I could maybe do it,” Leibowitz confessed. She added, though, that “a lot of people think, ‘I hate winter, I hate the cold, I would be happy if it was warmer all year round.’ But people underestimate how much there is to be lost in losing winter.”