A couple of weeks ago, I annoyed some people by suggesting that people might turn their heatingthermostats back to 55F. Now it is worth noting that I used this as an example, not an absolute truth - I'm not at all inclined to embark on a campaign for a mandatory single temperature. A number of people mentioned that it was completely impossible to imagine living at that temperature, while others announced that this was normal for them. So what's the difference between them?
Some of it is probably physiology, and the place your body grew up in. Some people run warm, some run cold, some have enough extra fat to keep warm, some have little personal insulation. Some of us grew up in cold places, others in warm. As we get older, we often feel the cold more, and some people have health problems that make them less tolerant than others of the cold weather. But a large portion of this is probably acclimation. That is, they've gradually accustomed their bodies to lower temperatures, and now those temperatures feel comfortable to them.
And I think acclimation is relevant not just to winter heating, but to a host of other things. Hot weather tolerance, for example, is physiologically a matter of acclimation - your body develops more capacity to sweat and cool itself as it is exposed to more heat. So, for example, someone who spends a lot of their time in air conditioning will feel the heat quite literally more than someone who spends less.
The fact is, my heat didn't go directly to 55 degrees - first, we didn't put our heat on until November, and while days stayed up in the 40s and sun warmed the house much higher, nights got cold even then. So we got used to cool temperatures indoors gradually - as the season grew cooler, we did too. At first, cold nights in the 40s felt like they were freezing, since our bodies were so accustomed to summer warmth. Now, after several months of night temperatures regularly in the teens, a 40 degree night like last night feels very pleasant, and we wander outdoors with just a sweater on. I think most people in both cold and warm climates can identify - in the fall, a day in the 40s feels cold and crisp. By springtime, going outside on a day that hits 45 feels like a luxury, and we start shedding clothes - that is, we've acclimated. The same is true of heat - if your daytime temperatures are over 100 regularly, you find an 85 degree day refreshing. On the other hand, in my climate, which rarely breaks 90, 85 is awfully warm and sticky.
We also try and spend a lot of time outside. We go out to haul wood, to feed the animals, to play in the snow, to take walks. A house that feels chilly at 55 when you've spent the whole day inside, suddenly feels toasty warm after a walk out in the 20 degree day. Because we heat with wood, we also have warm spots in our house - further away from the woodstove, we are colder. If we need a few minutes to warm up in front of the stove, that's a pleasure. If we have to sit and work for a while, often we try and do it there - in fact this kind of heating brings the family together.
We use other techniques to acclimate - we find the places where we lose heat and retain it, wearing hats sometimes even indoors, wool socks on cold feet and multiple layers that we can take off when we're up and moving around, and cuddle into when we're sitting. We use psychological techniques as well - when everyone around you lives in a 70F home, 55 seems shockingly cold. When you think that through most of human history, people's homes were heated by fires - and not that many of them, we have to realize that most people went through their lives acclimated to much colder temperatures than we have now. If they did, most of us can. There are those who really do need that place in front of the stove, or the space heater in the room they work in - infants, for example cannot regulate their body temperatures until they hit 10lbs. Some ill and disabled people cannot manage lower temperatures. But this is an argument often for spot heating - for making people comfortable where they must be most of the time, rather than for spreading heat inefficiently over a whole home.
But acclimation applies to more than heating and cooling - it applies to the whole process of becoming environmentally aware. Like our family at the beginning of the cool season, at first change feel like a shock to the system. Just as a cold day in September may feel bitter, intolerable, the first time you tell someone you aren't buying supermarket food, or you won't drive long distances, it may seem overwhelming, as though you could never get comfortable in this new way of existing. But time passes, you keep practicing, you keep doing it, and suddenly, you realize you are comfortable. The new food seems delicious, the new habit of taking public transportation starts to have unexpected joys.
It is well outside my range of interest to tell people exactly what temperature they should be living at. But most of us know that our first reaction to trying something isn't necessarily representative of the experience we will have over the long term. The process of acclimation can be hard sometimes - but the result is a new normal, coming to be content at a lower state, and that's worth a considerable effort, at least to me.