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I live in 24 hours of darkness each winter. Here’s how I stay sane

Five secrets to coping with winter’s shorter days—from a scientist who lives in the Arctic and is used to four months of complete darkness.

I live in 24 hours of darkness each winter. Here’s how I stay sane
[Photo: BublikPolina/iStock]

Yesterday, most Americans enjoyed an extra hour of sleep, thanks to the end of daylight saving time. But the price we’re paying for that additional hour is steep: Setting our clocks back means less light in the evenings, and for some, the onset of seasonal depression—or at least a greater desire to remain under the covers.

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To get some advice on how to cope with the lack of daylight, I spoke with my friend Sarah Strand, who studies permafrost—and, by extension, climate change—in Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago a breezy three-hour flight north of Oslo.

Strand lives in Longyearbyen, the main settlement in Svalbard, and the northernmost town in the world, with a population of around 2,200. Longyearbyen’s proximity to the North Pole means that during the summer, it’s light all the time. And then, from mid-October to mid-February, the sun never rises at all. 

That’s right: twenty-four hours of total darkness, for almost four months straight.

Despite the extreme conditions, studies have shown that people living in northern Norway don’t report higher rates of depression. “Residents . . . seem able to avoid much of the wintertime suffering experienced elsewhere—including, paradoxically, in warmer, brighter, more southern locations,” wrote Kari Leibowitz, who studied this trend in Tromsø, Norway, wrote in The Atlantic. 

So how do Norwegians cope—or even come to love—these many months of darkness? I figured Strand, who is embarking on her sixth winter in Svalbard, would be qualified to weigh in. 

She says residents who aren’t natives of Longyearbyen (of which there are many, since it’s a university town) usually find their first winter in the dark to be relatively easy. “The first winter most people find it really novel and they’re just excited to see what it’s going to be like,” she says. “But then after that, you know.” 

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While Strand admits that she tries to schedule vacation time during at least part of the long winter, she also has found ways to appreciate some of the peace and quiet that the dark season brings. These are her recommendations for maintaining your happiness, and your motivation, during the long, dark winter months: 

1. Keep to a routine

 It’s critical to maintain a consistent schedule, whatever that means for you. “[It’s] a bit easier for families with kids,” she says. “I definitely struggle with keeping a schedule, since I don’t have set (work) hours.” Other residents use walking their dogs as an excuse to get outside and maintain a sense of normality, even when it’s pitch black. 

One thing Strand does is runs after work, year-round, regardless of the amount of light—or large hypercarnivorous bears. “I know some people get a bit more worried about polar bears in the darkness,” she says, laughing. “I [go a] bit rogue. I would much rather support my mental happiness in continuing to run whenever I want.”

2. Plan excuses to be social

Though it doesn’t always feel as natural when it’s cold out, planning social activities can help you stave off feelings of isolation, which can have serious effects on your mental and physical health. Svalbard residents are intentional about hanging out during the Polar Night, to feel connected to other members of their community. People plan simple indoor activities, like making dinner together or seeing a film at the local movie theater. 

3. Opt for a technical solution

Lights that ease the wakeup process are very popular on Svalbard, Strand says. And for those who experience seasonal affective disorder—including approximately 10 millions Americans—light therapy, in the form of a SAD light, can be helpful in fighting the wintertime blues. Just make sure you choose the right one 

4. Find things to look forward to

While there’s no official holiday marking the first day without sun in Svalbard, Norwegians do celebrate the dark season by eating mørketidsboller, a sweet bun with dark chocolate. (And, because all seasons should involve specific pastries, they eat a different sweet bun, which typically contains sun-like yellow custard, when the light returns in the spring.)

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Of course there are plenty of other ways to celebrate the winter months. For instance, many Norwegians look forward to Christmas holiday celebrations—but emphasize the time spent with friends over the more commercial aspects, Strand says. 

Even if you’re not a big fan of holidays, you can use the darkness as an excuse to start a tradition of your own. Strand says she has a friend who has started an annual scavenger hunt party to celebrate the dark season. 

5. Don’t fight the darkness

Rather than bemoaning the lack of sunlight, give yourself permission to celebrate winter activities that bring you joy—whether that means baking cookies with friends, snuggling with your cat under a blanket, or enjoying a mug of tea and a good book. Scandinavians are big fans of hygge—basically embracing coziness—an idea that’s become popular in the U.S. in the past few years. 

But hygge is more than a passing trend for Norwegians; it’s a lifestyle. During the dark months in Svalbard, people light nice candles and spend evenings hanging out together. “Everyone is just used to living with these short days in the winter,” says Strand. “It improves the evening mood when you embrace the darkness.”

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About the author

Julia Herbst is the staff editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. Previously she worked as a writer and editor at Los Angeles magazine and BREAKER Magazine.

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