Many feel ‘downbeat’ starting around now, with a strange heaviness striking a large minority of the population in November. Its underlying mechanisms are fascinating.
This gloom is riddled with mysteries, but their secrets revolve around exactly two natural factors. The air is getting colder. And light is rapidly diminishing. Let’s look at little-known aspects of each.
Most people think the darkest time is the winter solstice, when we have the fewest minutes of daily sunshine. While that’s theoretically true, those minutes of sunshine are being chipped away from the start and the end of each day. And most folks are primarily aware of just the late afternoon light because that’s when we’re all awake.
Well, that part of our daily light doesn’t hit its minimum on December 21 but on December 7. That’s the date of our darkest afternoon, the earliest sunset.
So in terms of what we experience when returning from work or driving in our cars, the ten-day period before and after December 7 constitutes the year’s very darkest time. Thus, surprisingly, it’s darker at the end of November than at the end of December. So put a check mark next to November when you think of the onset of light-induced gloominess, well known to psychologists as seasonal affective disorder.
It gets worse. Added to the decreased daily daylight is the sudden diminishing of sunshine – a separate matter known by surprisingly few. That’s because, starting the first week of November on average, our region changes from its May-October average of 66 percent blue skies to its November-April average of 34 percent clear skies.
You heard that right. We’ve now entered the long depressing period when skies are mostly cloudy. And, as we all know, things just feel different when the sun is shining. When you add together the enhanced cloudiness with the reduced minutes of daily light, you get a one-two punch, a combination that can be disheartening enough to require intervention.
Now for the other natural November factor — the cold. Here in the mid-Hudson Valley we go from an average daily high of 74 degrees in September to 62 degrees in October to 50 degrees now in November. This twelve-degree drop isn’t as much an issue as the fact that our bodies haven’t yet adapted.
Think about it: A 48 degree reading feels unpleasant these days. Yet in March, the same 48 degrees feels wonderful, almost balmy. November is when we’re most unaccustomed to it.
Fifty degrees is a milestone for another reason, too. Below that temperature, we lose our sense of smell. Or at least it’s greatly diminished. Moreover, nature’s scents are far less abundant to begin with, right now. There are no flowers scenting our walkways. No aroma of cut grass ever since our lawn mowers fell silent. It matters.
That’s because we who live away from the artificial environs of cities are immersed in nature’s cascades even when we’re not focusing on them. We are creatures whose lives are directed on an accepted human hierarchy of senses — sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell in that order. Except, now in November, quite suddenly, most are diminished or absent. Smells are scarce, as well as the sounds of birds and rustling leaves, and the visual pleasures of colorful plants, flowers and birds. October’s glorious foliage along with the forest floor’s green bushes and wildflowers have changed into gray tree barks, with the sky transformed from two-thirds blue to two-thirds gray. Even rainbows are absent in November, normally. Our three most important senses have been simultaneously pillaged.
Okay, this is a bummer. But understanding the reason for November’s reduced joy can perhaps aid in coping with it. And if nature is what’s reducing her ecstasy particles, maybe it’s time to create synthetic pleasures with movies on our big new 4K screen after inviting friends for dinner and being resigned to eating our way through to spring.
Yeah, forget abstinence. Let’s party from now until those first violets.