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Thursday, July 23, 2015 12:22 am

The light that turns people on

Springfield must adopt a sunnier outlook

Everybody’s very happy
’Cause the sun is shining all the time
Looks like another perfect day
I love L.A.
– “I Love L.A.” by Randy Newman


For years, people measured the deficiencies of life in Springfield in terms of lifestyle emporia or ethnic eateries. The city’s gloominess was thought to be cultural, not meteorological. But according to NASA data, Sangamon County ranked 2,073 for sunniness out of the nation’s 3,111 counties over the 32 years ending in 2011. About two thirds of the counties in the country, in short, are sunnier places than our Baghdad in the beanfields. Using other data, government weather mavens report that over the past nearly 50 years ending in 2004, Springfield in an average year got 58 percent of the possible sunshine.

That’s a D-minus even by today’s standards.

Ancient Greeks and Romans recognized (by which I mean invented) Apollo as not only the god of sun and light but of medicine and healing. They knew what modern science is only beginning to learn. Hospital patients placed in bright rooms feel less stress and took less medication per hour than patients in dim rooms. Sunlight boosts the body’s production of mood-elevating serotonin; being exposed to sunlight during the day resets the body’s clock, making it easier to sleep at night.

On the topic of sunlight’s effect on mood, I am, for once, an informed source. I’ve spent time in Multnomah County, Oregon, famously, and inaccurately, regarded as one of the cloudier places in the country, and in Marin County, California, which is less famously one of the sunniest. The dull and gray winters in the former were survivable only because of good Portland beer and sun breaks. Even during the rainy season, the skies often clear in the middle of the day, with results described recently by the BBC’s Mark Easton, who experiences the same in England. “Immediately following a rain shower, when the sun bursts out and sparkles on puddles through clean, fresh air,” he writes, “colors brighter and senses somehow keener, those moments are profoundly exhilarating.”

They are indeed. Imagine a place, then, where the sun seems ever-present. Of the 10 cities in the U.S. with the most clear days on average (“clear” meaning with clouds covering less than one-third of the sky), five are in California. The part of California I briefly lived in, Marin County, was by NASA’s estimation more sunny than 92 percent of U.S. counties. Local boosters in San Rafael, the county seat, boast that their town sees sunshine 300 days a year, but you don’t just see sunshine there, you swim in it. A cloudy day between April and into October is a day with a cloud in it.

As for Mr. Newman’s analysis of weather cause and effect quoted above, I at first understood Randy as being ironic again. After living in California, I have come to believe that he was not. Climate does indeed induce states of mind, and that constant exposure to weathers of a certain sort shapes the people of a place. Californians really are happier because the sun is shining all the time. (There are tricky problems of language here. I use “happy” to mean “in a good mood,” not “satisfied with life.”) I know that every time I went outside and felt that sun on my face, I instantly felt calm and contentment oozing over me. I did not feel that way again until Hy-Vee opened. As for why this happens, don’t ask me for evidence from a randomized control trial. If Republican presidential candidates, B-list anti-vaxx celebrities and GMO paranoids can make up their own science to suit their prejudices, why can’t I?

It is at about this point in every column that readers expect the author to say something constructive. In the 1970s the weather wizards down at the State Water Survey experimented with making skies over Illinois cloudier in the hope of producing happier farmers, but it’s always easier to cloud things up than make them clear, as our politicians remind us every day.

Even AFSCME, the awful shadow of some unseen Power that floats, tho’ unseen, amongst us, has not the power to alter the local climate. However, the union and those like it could be a force for a happier Springfield in a different way, assuming the governor allows happiness on the bargaining table. In the summer the lawns of the Statehouse complex ought to look like London parks, dotted with sling-back lawn chairs in which state workers might bask in sunlight over the lunch hour and during breaks before returning to their desks refreshed. As for achieving that benefit in winter, I say open the armory to the sun by glassing in the roof and installing a food court in the resulting wintergarden. Now there’s a bit of transparency in government that really will make life in Illinois better.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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