With the nights at their longest and the weather at its bleakest, winter is in full force for those of us in the northern hemisphere. After the hubbub of the holiday season – even if our celebrations were a little different this year – it’s tempting to hunker down and wait for spring to brighten our moods before we think about socialising out and about. This year, perhaps more so than any we have experienced before, that retreat indoors has coincided with an increase in Covid-19 restrictions, meaning that for many across Europe and the US the decision isn’t optional.
But do humans need this seasonal downtime to rest and recharge – and if so, where does that need come from? Or has modern life conditioned us to be less social in the winter?
There is one modern phrase that sums up this desire to stay put in the winter – "cuffing season". The term was shortlisted for word of the year in 2017 by one dictionary, who describe the phenomenon as the time where, if you’re single, you might be looking to couple up with someone new at the start of winter and stay in that relationship until spring. Interest in "cuffing season" peaks in northern-hemisphere Google searches between October and February before dropping off entirely over the summer.
You only have to flick through lists of seasonal movies at this time of year to be offered up a virtual selection box of couple-themed romantic comedies. And there might be a good reason why: Feeling physically cold increases how much audiences like, and are willing to pay for, romantic films (however, those viewers already associated romance movies with warm feelings – so could perhaps imagine themselves warming up while watching it). There’s something about colder nights and shorter days that seems to make people want romantic storylines.
Our serotonin levels (a hormone that helps us to regulate our mood) decrease along with the drop in bright sunlight
The seasons have a profound impact on our psychologies, from our tendency to avoid taking risks to being less sociable and wanting to hunker down as if ready for hibernation. The amount of natural light, and our use of artificial light at night, has been linked to seasonal mood disorders. Our levels of serotonin (a hormone that helps us to regulate our mood) decrease along with the drop in bright sunlight. Though Christine Blume and her co-authors from the Centre of Chronobiology at the University of Basel point out that using artifical lights with cool wavelengths of light in the morning and warm in the evening can have a positive impact on our sleep patterns and mood.
But there’s also something about coldness that has a unique effect on attraction. Some research has found that heterosexual men, for example, find women’s bodies more attractive in winter than summer. The researchers proposed this was due to the contrast effect. This effect describes why something unique or different to the norm can be more appealing. In this case, it is less common to see images of people in swimwear in the winter, so the uniqueness makes them more attractive.
There is an abundance of nostalgic films to choose from in winter (Credit: Getty Images)
While the weather might cause a natural dip in our outlook, there’s another reason humans are more likely to couple up, or stay in a relationship, in winter that is all our own creation. Winter in the northern hemisphere coincides with religious celebrations, the New Year in Gregorian and Chinese calendars and other events like Valentine’s Day.
Cuffing season overlaps with these events – if you have a partner it is easier to stay with them than break up just before, says Katherine M Hertlein, a professor in couples and family therapy at the University of Nevada. “There can be pressures we feel from family, friends and our environment to be coupled up, but I also think that this pressure we feel is subconscious. From what I’ve seen, there are some people who don't want to end a relationship around this time of year either. I see people stay in relationships for the sake of not rocking the boat or ending up alone during this time.”
But even outside of romantic relationships, dates like these can change our behaviours.
“People take [New Year] to evaluate their lives – comparing it to what they thought they’d achieve, what they thought they’d have by now, and that can come with disappointment,” says Kalanit Ben-Ari, a couples therapist based in London. Short-term failure, be it not meeting our goals or failing to succeed our own expectations, can cause us to over react and give up. If New Year is a reminder that we didn’t meet the goals we set 12 months ago we might just park them completely. This is known as the "what the hell" effect, where our setbacks or what we deem to be failures, cause us to retreat.
We might be aware that dates in our diaries are fairly abitrary, but it is hard to overlook them. If everyone else is setting New Year resolutions, or gearing up for Valentine’s Day it’s hard not to think of our own progress in those respects.
The time between New Year and Valentine's Day can be tricky to end a relationship (Credit: Getty Images)
While the social phenomenon of cuffing season suggests this is a time for romance, it could also be taken as a time to repair the other relationships in our lives. Sally Baker, a relationship therapist in London, says Covid-19 has led some to reconnect with people from their past, rather than go to the effort of finding new connections. But rekindling too many old connections brings its own stresses.
For many with little other choice, our Christmas and New Year’s celebrations took place online this year. In the absence of being social in real life, is turning to digital methods having an effect on our wellbeing? This is a topic that Hertlein and others have explored. She says while people are using social media to meet each other, they’re also failing to focus on just one or two people, and instead speaking to many different people. “This doesn’t actually combat your loneliness. There’s research that shows for every 10th person on social media that you don’t actually know but are following or friends with, that’s another additional point to depression and anxiety.”
This is based on research by Brian Primack, a professor of public health at the University of Arkansas. “The double-edged sword of social media is even sharper during the time of Covid-19,” he says. “On the one side, we need tools like social media more than ever in order to feel connected while we’re having to be physically distanced. On the other, the large amounts of time we’re spending on social media might be subjecting us to more risk.”
However, ditching the online connections isn’t the answer, Hertlein says. We need to change instead the way we share with them. “The people we are interacting with can’t physically see us, so we [feel the need] to explain in detail our feelings. That makes us feel like these relationships are actually closer to us than we think. It’s a more vulnerable state to be in to keep explaining and detailing your thoughts and feelings.”
Winter doesn’t have to be a time to make great changes to our lives, but it’s important to understand where those feelings come from. “At our core we’re living this evolutionary pattern to get together, form a pack and stay alive,” says Hertlein. “But at the same time we’re getting bombarded by this idea that being alone during winter is not how you should be experiencing this time of year.”
Whether romantic films give you warm feelings or not, it is perhaps not surprising that so much of winter is geared towards staying in and staying cosy.
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