Why L.A.'s Beautiful Weather is Making You Stupid, Unproductive, and Gullible

The July weather has shifted in my southeastern corner of the county. Gloomy mornings open up to gloriously breezy afternoons. The temperature rises to a gentle 75 degrees and stops rising.

By a quirk of the onshore flow, which rarely extends this far in midsummer, we're getting the heat moderating overcast of the Pacific Palisades.

The weather locally has been delightful ... and that's a terrible problem. According to a report at the New Yorker's website, research on the psychology of weather supports the conclusion that a nice day is poison to eyes-on-the-prize mental focus.

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A day with sunshine, it seems, is like a day on Maui Wowie:

A 2008 study using data from the American Time Use Survey found that, on rainy days, men spent, on average, thirty more minutes at work than they did on comparatively sunny days. In 2012, a group of researchers from Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill conducted a field study of Japanese bank workers and found a similar pattern: bad weather made workers more productive, as measured by the time it took them to complete assigned tasks in a loan-application process.

Just thinking about another nice day in L.A. is nearly as corrosive to salaryman doggedness:

(R)esearchers found that participants were less productive when they'd viewed pleasant outdoor photographs. Instead of focusing on their work, they focused on what they'd rather be doing -- whether or not it was actually sunny or rainy outside ... . The mere thought of pleasant alternatives made people concentrate less.

We should have known the perverse connection between climate and intellectual and moral stamina. Moderate temperatures and cloudless skies have been criticized by observers of Los Angeles since the early 19th century. Bostonian Richard Henry Dana wrinkled his patrician nose at the indolence of Angeleños as early as 1836 and blamed the ease of life here.

Robert Benchley, Bertolt Brecht, Thomas Mann, Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy Parker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, H. L. Mencken, William Faulkner, and pretty much any writer who spent a week in L.A. between 1920 and 2000 had dark opinions about our sunshine (See below).

KCET's Departures named their blog Land of Sunshine, a nod to the 19th century journal. | Photo: Courtesy Calisphere

In Los Angeles, where nice days repeat interminably, it's inevitable that the locals lack the rigor of those who face the challenges of real weather. As a result, Angeleños are unable to distinguish reason from flimflam:

In 1994, Gerald Clore ... found that pleasant weather can often lead to a disconcerting lapse in thoughtfulness. Clore's team approached a hundred and twenty-two undergraduates on days with either good or bad weather and asked them to participate in a survey on higher education. The better the weather, the easier it was to get the students to buy into a less-than-solid argument ... . When the weather was rainy, cloudy, and cold, their critical faculties improved ... . Clore and his colleagues concluded that pleasant weather led people to embrace more heuristic-based thinking -- that is, they relied heavily on mental shortcuts at the expense of actual analysis.

I thought the worst that could be said of us is that we're cheerful hedonists. We're actually "whatever works" heuristicians running on sunshine and instinct. And according to the studies, when summer heat lingers above 81 degrees -- August! September! -- reason fails entirely. The hotter it gets, the less likely we're able to question what we're told.

It's useless to turn to graduates of our institutions of learning for relief from vacuity. Students at UCLA and USC -- worse, at Pepperdine in Malibu -- enrolled in a fog of misperceptions about the quality of their $200,000+ education:

In one recent project, the psychologist Uri Simonsohn found that students were more likely to enroll in a university that was famous for its academic rigor if they visited on days that were cloudy. When the weather turned sour, he concluded, the value they placed on academics increased.

Sadly, the bliss of equitable weather doesn't make us happier than the American average, although we may be too blissed out to realize it. Multiple studies show that Angeleños are no happier than the clear-thinking people who live in Dubuque or Schenectady, who know why they're happy. Angeleños rely on the delusion that what they feel under the sun is joy.

I've lived here my entire life. I shiver when the temperature falls below 60 degrees. Thanks to the climate, my powers of judgment are comparable to a garden gnome's. Gullible me, I've fallen hard for the boosters' sales pitch of health and happiness in this land of sunshine. I've written and sold a screenplay, a sure marker of climate-induced intellectual emptiness for Faulkner and Fitzgerald. And I could not care less that the script is unlikely ever to be produced. Blame the climate.

I think I'll go out and sit by someone's pool this afternoon and think no thoughts at all about doomed and sunny Los Angeles.

A sample of L.A. climate critiques:

  • "They have nature here, indeed, since everything is so artificial, they even have an exaggerated feeling for nature." Bertolt Brecht
  • "(W)ith bronzed, unselfconscious bodies ... they seemed to walk along the rim of the world as though they and their kind alone inhabited it...and they turn into precursors of a new race not yet seen on the earth: of men and women without age, beautiful as gods and goddesses, with the minds of infants" William Faulkner, "Golden Land"
  • "When it's 105 in New York City, it's 78 in L.A. When it's 20 below in New York City, it's 78 in L.A. Of course, there are 11 million interesting people in New York City and only 78 in L.A. Los Angeles -- It's like paradise with a lobotomy." Neil Simon, "California Suite"
  • "I could hear everything, together with the hum of my hotel neon. I never felt sadder in my life. LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities; New York gets godawful cold in the winter but there's a feeling of wacky comradeship somewhere in some streets. LA is a jungle." Jack Kerouac, "On the Road"

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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