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The Norwegian Secret To Enjoying A Long Winter

Residents of Norway view their long dark winters as something to celebrate. How it's possible to be cheerful for the next four months.

[Photo: gustavmelin0 via Pixabay]

Editor’s Note: This article is one of the top 10 Leadership stories of 2015. See the full list here.

As the days get darker and colder in much of the northern hemisphere, it’s easy to indulge in gloom. For the next few months, you’ll be shivering. You’ll be battling foul weather. Thanks to daylight saving time there will be no chance to see the sun after work.

The gloom leads to a common question: What can I do to cope with the dark and cold?

If you truly want to be happy during winter, though, this is the wrong approach to the season. Changing your mindset can do more than distracting yourself from the weather.

That’s the takeaway from research done by Kari Leibowitz, currently a PhD student at Stanford University, who spent August 2014 to June 2015 on a Fulbright scholarship in Tromsø in northern Norway. Tromsø is so far north that from late November to late January, the sun never climbs above the horizon. Leibowitz went to study the residents’ overall mental health, because rates of seasonal depression were lower than one might expect.

Photo: Flickr user Mark Robinson

At first, she was asking "Why aren’t people here more depressed?" and if there were lessons that could be taken elsewhere. But once she was there, "I sort of realized that that was the wrong question to be asking," she says. When she asked people "Why don’t you have seasonal depression?" the answer was "Why would we?"

It turns out that in northern Norway, "people view winter as something to be enjoyed, not something to be endured," says Leibowitz, and that makes all the difference.

Lessons From The Far North

To be sure, there are some aspects of the near-polar culture that might be hard to emulate elsewhere. Small Norwegian communities are tightly knit, and strong social ties increase well-being everywhere. That said, there are lessons that can help anyone think differently about cold weather.

First, Norwegians celebrate the things one can only do in winter. "People couldn’t wait for the ski season to start," says Leibowitz. Getting outside is a known mood booster, and so Norwegians keep going outside, whatever is happening out there. Notes Leibowitz: "There’s a saying that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing."

Norwegians also have a word, koselig, that means a sense of coziness. It’s like the best parts of Christmas, without all the stress. People light candles, light fires, drink warm beverages, and sit under fuzzy blankets. There’s a community aspect to it too; it’s not just an excuse to sit on the couch watching Netflix. Leibowitz reports that Tromsø had plenty of festivals and community activities creating the sense that everyone was in it together.

Photo: Flickr userJan Fredrik Frantzen

And finally, people are enamored with the sheer beauty of the season. Leibowitz grew up near the Jersey shore, and "I just took it as a fact that everyone likes summer the best." But deep in the winter in Norway, when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon, multiple hours a day can still look like sunrise and sunset, and against the snow, "the colors are incredibly beautiful," she says. "The light is very soft and indirect."

A Mindset Shift

Most likely you can’t cross-country ski straight out of your house, and while Norwegian sweaters may be catching on, restaurants and coffee shops in more temperate climates don’t all feature the fireplaces and candles common to the far north. Still, there are little things non-Norwegians can do. "One of the things we do a lot of in the States is we bond by complaining about the winter," says Leibowitz. "It’s hard to have a positive wintertime mindset when we make small talk by being negative about the winter."

This is easy enough to change; simply refuse to participate in the Misery Olympics. Talk about how the cold gives you a chance to drink tea or hot chocolate all day. Talk about ice skating, or building snowmen. Bundle up and go for a walk outside, knowing that you’ll likely feel warmer and happier after a few minutes. Better yet, go with a friend. Social plans are a great reason to haul yourself out from under the covers.

But overall, mindset research is increasingly finding that it doesn’t take much to shift one’s thinking. "It doesn’t have to be this huge complicated thing," says Leibowitz. "You can just consciously try to have a positive wintertime mindset and that might be enough to induce it."