Jeremy Laurance: Why we should spend more time around the fire this winter

Medical Life

I was once asked by a couple I knew to arbitrate in their marital dispute. Their disagreement was not over children, or money, or bedroom etiquette. It was over heat. The husband thought that he should be able to wear a T-shirt year-round in the house. His wife thought that it was not unreasonable in winter for him to consider wearing a sweater.

At the time, I took the wife's side. In the battle of the thermostat, I am a 19-degree man, while my own wife is a 22. Her argument is that her memories of childhood are dominated by clutching radiators, plunging hands into bowls of hot water (which only caused chilblains) and piling on the eiderdowns in the struggle to stay warm. She insists that she would rather be warm and poor – with rocketing fuel prices – than cold and rich.

At the weekend, I padded downstairs at 6.30am on Sunday to turn the thermostat down, something I do frequently and surreptitiously. She, however, cranks it up, noisily and publicly. With huge increases in fuel bills looming, similar arguments are presumably going on in households across the land. But after climbing back into bed, I wondered whether I shouldn't have had another think.

For one thing, as I get older, I feel the cold more. For another, I returned at the weekend from a country, Zambia, where the midday temperature was around 35 degrees. It is impossible not to notice how, despite their lack of material resources, the people there remain astonishingly cheerful. Walk through Garden Compound, the poorest area of Lusaka, the capital, and compare the smiling faces with those on the average London street.

Is there a link between mood and heat? Is the Pope a Catholic? The extrovert, exuberant peoples who inhabit the sunny shores of the Mediterranean are a world away from the dour, introverted peoples of northern Europe, who must insulate themselves against the cold, and one another, through the long, dark winters. Human beings came from the tropics, and climate influences the way we feel, the fiery and the frigid.

Physical warmth and psychological warmth are closely linked. A warm heart is a generous heart, and we are more likely to trust someone with a hot drink in our hands than a cold one, according to psychologists. Conversely, people who are lonely or depressed are more likely to feel the cold. Being social may be as effective as being active as a strategy to beat winter's chill.

It will not be easy to resist tweaking the thermostat as I pass it. But one thing I resolve to do this winter is get in the logs and spend more time gathered around the fire.



History has been made by the BMJ Group, part of the British Medical Association, which announced last week that it was to take over publication of 'Acupuncture in Medicine', a quarterly journal and its first complementary-medicine title. Twenty years ago, the BMA described alternative medicine as a "passing fashion". Now it has decided that it can't beat it, so it had better join it. What next? The Ministry of Defence's guide to UFOs?

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