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Postcards from Scotland

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Carol Craig is the Centre's Chief Executive. She is author of The Scots' Crisis of Confidence, Creating Confidence: A Handbook for Professionals Working with Young People, The Tears that Made the Clyde: Well-being in Glasgow and The Great Takeover: How materialism, the media and markets now dominate our lives. She is Commissioning editor for the Postcards from Scotland series. Carol blogs on confidence, well-being, inequality, every day life and some of the great challenges of our time. The views she expresses are her own unless she specifically states that they reflect the Centre's thinking.

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Posted 18/07/2006

All the talk recently about how wonderful it is to have a reasonably long spell of hot sunshine has got me thinking again about how the weather connects with the Centre’s agenda. When I wrote my book I didn’t include anything about the weather. My reasoning was simple: the Irish are much more positive and appreciative than the Scots and their weather isn’t significantly better than ours’. However, just about every time I give a talk someone brings up the weather and asserts that this must be one of the main reasons for Scottish negativity. People feel so much better when they are in hot countries, or when we get bursts of good weather here in Scotland so they reason they would generally feel better about life if the weather was nicer. But the evidence doesn’t support this. David Bell from Stirling University and a colleague, David Blanchflower, have analysed data on life satisfaction across Europe in the period 1973-2003. And guess what? Countries at the top of the satisfaction league are not noted for their fine weather - Denmark, Norway, Netherlands, Sweden, Northern Ireland, Ireland, Wales and Finland. They all rank higher than Scotland for life satisfaction and countries which rank lower include countries with serious sunshine: Greece, Portugal, France, Italy and Spain. Professor Martin Seligman also uses research in the US to argue that good weather has little impact on happiness and life satisfaction levels.

So how can people put so much emphasis on weather when it is not as important as they think? The explanation seems to be that we forget to factor in what psychologists call adaptation. External events, whether it is getting a new car or living in a great climate feel great for a wee while. They seem to add to our life and we appreciate them but quickly we adapt and don’t notice anymore. The novelty of the wonderful new car wears off and the brilliant sunshine just becomes the weather we have come to expect. Our mood – our level of happiness – often settles back to its previous level. This doesn’t mean that SAD (seasonal affective disorder) doesn’t exist. People can feel a bit gloomy in the winter as a result of lack of light but the weather isn’t as big a factor as we think. Just look at again at the list at who tops the list for life satisfaction.

Here’s an inkling of some of the issues for at least one warm, Latin country. A few years ago a British journalist Tobias Jones published a book called The Dark Heart of Italy. Jones is married to an Italian and has lived there for a few years. He starts off the book talking about how Italy is often seen as some kind of paradise for Brits – the weather, the buildings, the food, the culture, the style … so much to fall in love with. Unless they live there. What Jones discovered is that Italy may be beautiful on the surface but it has truly a ‘dark heart’ The emphasis on style and appearance – ‘la bella figura’ is oppressive. The church plays a monolothic part in Italian life. Corruption is rife. Not just in politics or business but also in the beautiful game – football. Italy is unbelievably bureaucratic. Apparently Italy has more laws than any other European country. Italians not only spend lots of time writing formal letters or forms but also queuing. No wonder Italians rarely feel patriotic or optimistic about the possibilities of changes.

One thing I envy about the culture of European countries is that warm evenings make for easy sociability: the stroll through the streets, the men playing boules in the square or the pleasure to be had sitting outside for a drink and a chat. But I suppose we should not forget that cold climates encourage another type of sociability – one based on dark nights and cosy fires. For me the writer who best summed up this side of Scotland was Robert Louis Stevenson. And interestingly he sets the great positives of the culture against some of Scotland’s ‘dark heart’:

"The happiest lot on earth is to be born a Scotsman. You must pay for it in many ways, as for all other advantages on earth. You have to learn the Paraphrases and the Shorter Catechism; you generally take to drink; your youth, as far as I can find out, is a time of louder war against society, of more outcry and tears and turmoil, than if you had been born, for instance, in England. But somehow life is warmer and closer; the hearth burns more redly; the lights of home shine softer on the rainy street; the very names; endeared in verse and music, cling nearer round our hearts."

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