Why would you ever purposefully go to one of the darkest, coldest places on Earth, especially during wintertime? Conventional wisdom tells us that we’re like plants, thriving in the warmth and sun.
And yet, that’s exactly what Kari Leibowitz, social psychology PhD student at Stanford and former U.S.-Norway Fulbright Scholar did. She packed her bags to go to the northernmost university in the world, north even of the Arctic circle — the University of Tromsø, situated on a tiny island the size of Manhattan, with about 70,000 residents, during the coldest, darkest, and some would say most miserable time of the year.
Why? Because researchers have discovered that the residents of northern Norway, despite being geographically positioned to experience the worst winters that Earth has to offer, actually suffer much less from wintertime gloom than that conventional wisdom would lead us to expect.
“Residents of northern Norway seem able to avoid much of the wintertime suffering experienced elsewhere — including, paradoxically, in warmer, brighter, more southern locations,” Kari Leibowitz wrote via the Atlantic.
She wanted to learn more, in the hopes of applying her research to help others accomplish the same. Her research discovered that the key wasn’t cod liver oil, sunlight simulation lamps, or the daily ski commutes to keep these Norwegians cheery. It was a simpler yet more complex solution: what Leibowitz coined the Wintertime Mindset.
The Science Behind the Norwegian Wintertime Mindset
When Leibowitz wanted to create a survey to test attitudes towards winter, she quickly ran into her problem, as well as her eureka moment: no surveys existed that had questions asking about more positive mindsets to winter. That conventional wisdom is so strong in our culture that even unbiased, balanced psychological surveys are predisposed to think of winter as bad for humans. Seasonal Affective Disorder and other psychological questionnaires, when they referenced winter attitudes at all, were resoundingly negative.
This was a problem because the more she interacted with the residents of Tromsø, the more she realized people there actually looked forward to winter, contrary to what she’d expected when she moved over there.
“In Tromsø, the prevailing sentiment is that winter is something to be enjoyed, not something to be endured,” she found. These folks didn’t view the gloomy wintertime as an obstacle, but rather as a different experience, same as any other season. She found her friends would bundle up to continue spending time outdoors even when it was dreary by her standards; they luxuriated in the koselig feeling (“cozy” in Norwegian); they delighted in lighting candles everywhere from November onwards.
This revelation helped her develop a more balanced set of survey questions, modeling it off Professor Crum’s Stress Mindset Measure, which allowed for both positive and negative feelings associated with wintertime. After surveying a random sample of 238 Norwegian adults, she found that there was a positive correlation between a positive attitude towards winter and both general life satisfaction as well as openness to new challenges.
Interestingly, she also found the further north the respondent was, the more positive their mindset was. Residents of Svalbard, a tiny Arctic island where temperatures average -4 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit and which experiences no lightening at all in the darkness during the Polar Nights, were downright sunny in their attitudes towards the long, dark, winter.
In other words, she found that a positive attitude towards winter was associated with being happy with life, and willing to embark on personal growth. And this relationship strengthened the darker and colder winters got.
How You Can Learn to Love Your Own Wintertime
The good news is it’s not that Tromsøians and Svalbardians just have a special gene that lets them look forward to winter — they have, intentionally or not, cultivated a positive winter mindset. The further north people live, the more active they have to be about this mindset, which is why Leibowitz discovered the positive correlation between latitude and positive winter mindset.
Leibowitz found that, even though she was a transplant from New Jersey and not a resident, she could work to look forward to winter too. Instead of thinking of the Polar Night as the mørketid, or “dark time” in Norwegian, she took a note out of her friend Fern’s book, thinking of it as the “Blue Time” instead and consciously focusing the soft blue haze that settled over everything and considering it cozy rather than depressing.
I myself am a child of summer, preferring the warmth and the light over anything else. I left the UK partially because I missed the hot, sweltering, humid Georgia Julys. But even I have managed to train myself to look at the winter as a bright spot in the year, rather than a slog to get through. I focus on the unique aspects I love about winter: mulled wine, baking cookies, bundling up in layers. I love the sense of family, as many of my favorite holidays take place on cold, dark nights. I rely on my Spanish heritage to celebrate la noche buena and la noche vieja, which take place on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.
I don’t want to imply that if you have depression or SAD you can just magically mindset your way to happiness. But for those of us who think of winter as a challenge, an obstacle, a guaranteed bad time, it is good to know that it’s possible to try to change the way we look at the season to experience a happier, more fulfilled life.
To try this yourself, look for the bright spots, figuratively and literally, in winter. They’ll be unique to you and your situation — maybe rituals or routines you do with your family; maybe a local celebration to look forward you. You can also try what Fern and Leibowitz did, and actively work to alter your mindset on circumstances you viewed as negative, like the darkness or the weather, to become more positive.
With the right mindset, it’s not only possible but actually enjoyable to get through the long, dark nights of winter.