For the last 8 years I’ve lived in Edmonton, Alberta on the Canadian prairies. There is a lot to be said for the region, particularly since it is a three hour drive to the Canadian Rockies. There is also a lot of sun, which is much appreciated after many years living in rainy Vancouver. But man, does it get cold in the winter. And the last two months Edmonton has lived up to its title as “Gateway to the North”. We most recently passed through a period of more than a week when the temperature didn’t climb above -20 C (that’s – 4 F). At times like this I feel like “Pablo the Penguin that Hated the Cold.”
So how does one bear up under the cold? Especially if I can’t follow Pablo’s lead in chipping off a piece of ice and sailing to warmer climes? This is where the contrast effect becomes a special comfort. Psychologists define this as the psychological boost people receive by comparing themselves with people in worse circumstances. So my question: who’s got it colder than Edmonton?
First some facts. Edmonton averages a high of -8 C in January (so these -20 C days do constitute a cold snap, even for these parts). That’s on average a couple degrees colder than Moscow, so thinking of bundled up babushkas shuffling by Red Square won’t be of much help (unless I want to add health and socio-economic status to my calculation). No, let’s keep it fixed purely on weather. Is there a way to bouy up my attitude and dispel these chilly January blues fixed on weather alone?
It is that that point that I turn to Siberia and settle on Yakutsk. While there are colder settled regions, they’re all tiny villages with populations in the hundreds. But Yakutsk holds the icy title of the coldest city on earth. With a population in excess of 200,000 people, that’s a lot of potential misery.
So how cold is it? Remember I said that the average high in Edmonton’s January is -8 C. In Yakutsk an average January day is -36 C. Yes, you read that right: minus thirty-six. (Remember -40 C is -40 F.) Anyway you look at it, that is miserably, horrifyingly cold.
Think of it this way: there are many years when Edmonton never hits the frosty depths of an average Yakutsk January afternoon. And when you drop into the -40s the entire city is usually enveloped in a heavy ice fog where visibility can drop to mere meters. Think of having to wrap up in furs, leave your meager cold war apartment and journey out into that desolation day … after day … after day.
Or think of it this way: Edmonton is to Yakutsk as Los Angeles is to Edmonton. That’s the temperature chasm we’re talking about. For a visitor from Yakutsk the snow outside my window would look more like white sand. Now that’s a change in perspective. Imagine that Edmonton in January would offer some people a vacation respite from the cold. What an amazing psychological impact this information has! The weather hasn’t improved outside my window but I feel better — warmer — already.
The contrast effect is always there, always encouraging us in a zero-sum game over against our friends, peers, enemies and strangers. And it provides that added optimism in a bleak day … at least until you begin to reflect on it. But then I ask that disturbing question: why do I need to look for the misery in others to make myself feel better?