Are you feeling that winter sadness creeping in already, as the days get shorter? (Nadeen Nakib for Yahoo Health/istock)
You might be able to combat the winter blues by taking a new approach to how you think about winter, like the people in this city.
Kari Leibowitz, a PhD student in Social Psychology at Stanford University, went to the second largest city in Norway to study their citizens during the country’s Polar Night period, inspired by previous research that found Seasonal Affective Disorder was remarkably low.
Leibowitz was in Tromsø, Norway conducting research into how inhabitants of Norway fight the wintertime blues from August to May. Tromsø is a city of over 70,000, spread over 971 miles and located 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It is known as an excellent metropolitan hub for viewing the Northern Lights. The city experiences Polar Night from November 21 to January 21, when the sun dips below the horizon for those two months. It’s not pitch black all the time, but there is literally no direct sunlight. It’s also not uninhabitable, although certainly not warm, with the average winter temperature in January is 24°F.
Related: Can You Have A Mild Version Of SAD?
“Once I moved to Norway and started talking to people and observing things, I realized I might be taking the wrong approach by asking them why they weren’t more depressed,” Leibowitz says in an interview with Yahoo Health. “I found that people there enjoyed the winter and looked forward to it, which is something I wasn’t used to after growing up in New Jersey. I disliked the winter so much that I went to school in Atlanta to get away from it.”
After some time assimilating to local culture, Leibowitz found that spending time in the outdoors was much more a part of everyday life for Norwegians than it is for Americans in wintertime. She also realized that they kept using the word “cozy” to describe wintertime, from the feeling of the weather to indoor activities to the tint of the sky. She suspects this positive way of thinking about winter is what gives them what she terms a “winter flourishing” mindset.
Along with her advisor Joar Vittersø at the University of Tromsø, she developed a Wintertime Mindset Scale that was completed by a random survey of 238 Norwegians who, she wrote in The Atlantic, inhabit “southern Norway, northern Norway, and Svalbard, an Arctic island located halfway between northern Norway and the North Pole” (it’s worth noting that she calls the latter an outlier that is self-selecting due to its extreme climate, because if you choose to live there you certainly better develop a positive mindset about cold weather and darkness). The questions asked agree or disagree statements to statements like “I feel like doing nothing at all in the winter” and “Winter is an especially beautiful time of year.” She found that the more northerly their location, the more positive their wintertime mindset was. The Wintertime Mindset Scale also found a positive correlation with lifestyle satisfaction.
Can this positive mindset be extrapolated to Americans and Europeans? Leibowitz thinks so, although her scientific data stops with Norway. “From my own experience, I watched my own wintertime mindset shift while I was in Norway,” she says. “Being around other people who enjoyed the winter gave me a new appreciation for it. Learning to embrace the things about winter that are wonderful is important…Notice the opportunities for coziness: how beautiful it can be, how soft and calming the light is. Reframing your mindset is something we could do in the States.”
Leibowitz also notes that getting outdoors in the winter is an important step in that reframing. If winter weather and darkness are something you dread so much that you don’t partake in healthy activities like walking or running and instead slip into a stasis, it will have a negative impact on your lifestyle satisfaction.
Leibowitz suggests applying the same rethinking of your mindset to shorter days with more darkness, suggesting looking forward to the things you can only do because it is dark, like lighting candles and creating a cozy environment, rather than only embracing the negative side of those early sunsets.
It is important to note that this research into a positive wintertime mindset does not address clinical wintertime depression, or Seasonal Affective Disorder. “There’s a difference between feeling grumpy and having a negative attitude about the winter than having clinical seasonal depression. Mental disorders are not the same as bad moods,” Leibowitz says. “People who have Seasonal Affective Disorder cannot jump out of it simply by changing their mindset.”