Under the Weather: Does Your City’s Climate Make You Sad?

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Many people believe the weather in San Francisco, where I live currently, is just about perfect—never too hot, never too cold. But as a born-and-raised New Englander, I can’t get over the absence of four distinct seasons in the Bay Area. After twelve years here, I still yearn for fall foliage, winter snow, spring blossoms, and hot summers in which I can actually take a swim in the ocean without having to wear a wetsuit. Something about the ups and downs of enduring eighteen-degree days in February and 70 percent humidity in July simply suited my psyche better than the lack of climatic variation in Northern California—I guess I just find the cycle of punishment and reward inherent in East Coast weather more exciting. Whatever the reason, when I leave my house in San Francisco on the fourteenth foggy, fifty-degree day in a row (especially if it’s a day in August), it really gets to me—I feel antsy, glum, and sluggish. The majority of researchers concur that weather does impact mood—just ask the millions of Americans who suffer from seasonal affective disorder—but are the residents of U.S. cities with great weather happier overall than those who live in cities with a crummy climate? The experts say no.

Sunny Weather, Sunny Disposition?
Since its inception in 1818, the Farmers’ Almanac has been one of the definitive resources on all things climate-related in the United States (although that still doesn’t make setting our clocks an hour ahead for daylight saving time any easier). Its Web site features a list of the ten U.S. cities with the best weather, as well as explanations of its criteria for determining which places make the cut:

  1. Yuma, Arizona: This city boasts only seventeen rainy days annually, 90 percent sunshine, and extremely dry heat (it’s the third-least-humid city in the country).
  2. Las Vegas, Nevada: 85 percent sunshine and just twenty-six rainy days per year mean lots more tanning time at all those high-priced hotels.
  3. Phoenix, Arizona: Tied with Vegas in the sunshine department, Phoenix has the lowest relative humidity and only 7.11 inches of annual precipitation.
  4. El Paso, Texas: Mild winters, tons of sunshine, and low humidity reign in this border town.
  5. Reno, Nevada: Reno’s temperate climate and abundant sunshine make for easy livin’.
  6. Albuquerque, New Mexico: The Sandia Mountains and the International Balloon Fiesta aren’t Albuquerque’s only attractions—it also offers dry heat and a wide range of livable temperatures.
  7. Winslow, Arizona: Winslow is the eight-driest and seventh-least-humid city in the United States.
  8. Bishop, California: With twenty-nine rainy days per year, Bishop is the third-driest city in the country.
  9. Bakersfield, California: Right behind Bishop on the driest-cities list, Bakersfield gets only thirty-seven days of rainfall annually.
  10. San Diego, California: Featuring comfortable temperatures and clear skies year-round, San Diego is paradise for sun worshippers and outdoor enthusiasts.

In 2005, Men’s Health compiled a list of the happiest U.S. cities based on three indicators specific to each location: antidepressant sales, suicide rates, and how many days per year residents reported feeling depressed. Taking top honors were:

  1. Laredo, Texas
  2. El Paso, Texas
  3. Jersey City, New Jersey
  4. Corpus Christi, Texas
  5. Baton Rouge, Louisiana
  6. Honolulu, Hawaii
  7. Fresno, California
  8. San Jose, California
  9. Lincoln, Nebraska
  10. Bakersfield, California

Although two cities (El Paso and Bakersfield) do appear on both of these lists, scientists have not established any direct correlation between the weather in a person’s area of residence and that person’s emotional state from year to year. Despite Men’s Health’s finding that Bakersfield has low rates of antidepressant purchases and suicide, there’s simply not enough evidence out there to indicate that those statistics derive from the city’s pleasant climate.

Overcast Skies, Dreary Outlook?
As the old song goes: “Raindrops keep fallin’ on my head / But that doesn’t mean my eyes will soon be turnin’ red. Crying’s not for me …” These lyrics may have been onto something, according to two additional lists. First, using sunshine, sky conditions, precipitation, humidity, and wind as its criteria, the Farmers’ Almanac identified the ten U.S. cities with the worst weather as:

  1. Quillayute, Washington: This actually isn’t a city; it’s a site where weather data is accumulated. But the poor climatic conditions scientists have recorded there—240 cloudy days per year, 83 percent relative humidity, and 104.5 inches of annual rainfall—catapult it to the top of this list.
  2. Astoria, Oregon: Tied with Quillayute for number of cloudy days, Astoria is also the third-wettest U.S. city.

3. & 4. Marquette, Michigan, and Sault St. Marie, Michigan (tied): These two locales are, respectively, the fourth- and fifth-coldest and second- and third-snowiest cities in the country. Brr …

5. & 6. Syracuse, New York, and Binghamton, New York (tied): It rains 171 days per year in Syracuse and 162 days in Binghamton; the former sees 212 cloudy days, and the latter gets 111.6 inches of snow annually.

  1. Elkins, West Virginia: Elkins ties Syracuse as the fourth-rainiest city in the nation.
  2. New Orleans, Louisiana: The Big Easy is swampland, and as such is one of the most humid cities in the country, averaging 75.5 percent. It also gets sixty inches of rain each year.
  3. Eugene, Oregon: Eugene is neck and neck with New Orleans in the humidity department, and it’s cloudy there 209 days out of the year.
  4. Hilo, Hawaii: A city in Hawaii might seem like the last place that would end up on the bad-weather list, but in Hilo’s case, it’s earned its position—it’s the rainiest place in the entire United States, getting 128 inches of precipitation, 277 days a year.

All that rain and snow doesn’t translate into miserable residents, though, according to Men’s Health’s list of the top ten unhappiest U.S. cities:

1.      Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

2.      Detroit, Michigan

3.      St. Petersburg, Florida

4.      St. Louis, Missouri

5.      Tampa, Florida

6.      Indianapolis, Indiana

7., 8. & 9. Mesa, Arizona; Phoenix, Arizona; Scottsdale, Arizona (tied)

10. Cleveland, Ohio

Only New Orleans makes an appearance on both lists—and that overlap may be little more than a coincidence. This list suggests that while states like Arizona and Florida may connote sunshine, fresh air, and happy-go-lucky locals, the equation isn’t quite that simple.

Weathering the Storm
Certainly, for people of sound mind and body, a warm, sunny day can be an instant mood-booster, encouraging us to get outside and enjoy life to the fullest. By the same token, limited daylight hours and harsh elements can be debilitating for the victims of seasonal affective disorder. However, in neither scenario does the annual weather in an individual’s specific geographical location appear to make a lasting difference in his or her general psychological well-being. When other factors—financial concerns, destructive relationships, or severe conditions such as bipolar disorder and manic-depressive illness, for example—come to bear, sometimes we don’t even notice the snow swirling around us or the blue sky above. Whether we’re wearing sunglasses or foul-weather gear, true happiness comes from within.

Updated March 1, 2011


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