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Overcoming Winter Blahs

Expert Source: Kari Leibowitz, PhD candidate in social psychology at Stanford University, whose research focuses on the role of mindset in health.

For many of us, autumn is a melancholy time of year. We might enjoy the changing colors or the relief from summer’s heat, but these are also signs that winter is on its way. Even in southern climates, days grow shorter and moods often get darker. If we live farther north, we start to lament the coming snow and ice — and an end to our favorite warm-weather activities. Or we may feel anxious about being housebound and out of touch with our neighbors and friends until spring.

Still, our dislike of winter may be all in our heads, says Stanford social-psychology researcher Kari Leibowitz.

She spent time studying the people of Tromsø, a Norwegian city 200 miles above the Arctic Circle, whose “polar night” lasts for two months. She made the surprising discovery that these residents viewed winter more positively than Norwegians who live farther south.

Their secret to wintertime happiness? A few sensible customs — and a lean-into-it attitude toward the season itself. Here’s how our northern neighbors maintain their sunny outlook during winter’s darkest days.

Challenges to Overcome

  • Expecting to be shut in. The biggest obstacle to enjoying winter is our negative mindset about it, Leibowitz suggests. We assume we have to give up things we enjoy, like spending time outside. “There’s a lot of cultural agreement in the United States around the idea that you’re just supposed to do less in the winter.”
  • Aversion to darkness. As winter approaches, we start to worry about losing daylight hours. “Americans really don’t like that it gets dark so early and stays dark for so long,” says Leibowitz. Many of us associate darkness with sleeping, and this can make us feel inclined to stay inside.
  • Dislike of the cold. Whether you live north or south, temperatures will drop when there’s less light. Depending on your constitution, you might be anticipating serious discomfort — as well as the potential inconvenience of dressing in layers to stay warm.
  • Missing friends. With a winter shut-in mindset, Leibowitz says, you may assume that your social life will suffer — and so it often does. You go out less frequently with friends (because that means bundling up and facing the cold) and instead retreat full-time into binge-watching videos, because you aren’t looking for other options.
  • Money worries. In cold climates, winter brings higher heating bills, which can cause genuine financial stress. And our assumptions about winter recreation can lead to other money worries, Leibowitz adds. “We may feel the only real winter activities have to be done in some designated wintertime recreation area, like skiing at an expensive ski resort, or skating on an indoor ice rink for a fee.”
  • Seasonal depression. Some people experience negative biochemical effects from less daylight, a condition known as seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Still, “there’s a big difference between being cranky in the winter and being diagnosed with SAD,” says Leibowitz. And the treatments for SAD may not work as well if we’re committed to hating winter. (For more on handling SAD symptoms with nutrition and lifestyle, see “Beating the Winter Blues.”)

Strategies for Success

  • Consider other perspectives. When Leibowitz witnessed how much Tromsø citizens enjoyed the polar night of northern Norway, she was inspired. “I realized that people there weren’t thinking about the winter the way we tend to,” she says. “Their attitude was, ‘Why would you expect us to be more depressed?’”
  • Choose your words. It can be helpful to change the conversation about winter. “We tend to greet each other with complaints: ‘It’s so cold’ or ‘It took me forever to get here today,’” Leibowitz says. “We do this to bond socially.” But we can bond over winter’s positive aspects, too. Why not mention the beautiful ice-covered tree you saw on your way to work?
  • Dress properly and go outside. It doesn’t occur to Tromsø-ites to stay indoors if they don’t want to, Leibowitz explains. They live by the Norwegian adage that “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” They take the time to dress warmly before going out for long walks, cross-country skiing, pond skating, and hockey. “There’s nothing in summer like the sense of refreshment you get from being out in the cold,” she says.
  • Appreciate winter’s beauty. Winter in northern Norway is spectacular. Although the sun never rises during the polar night, it hovers near the horizon, creating dramatic skyscapes. Leibowitz encourages the winter-averse to watch for spectacles like this, at whatever latitude they might live. “Even in New Jersey, where I grew up, and where there isn’t much snow,” she says, “the seashore is wild and beautiful in the winter.”
  • Study winter. Another way to fight winter dread is to explore seasonal specificities: Take a course on the winter habits of wildlife in your area, for example, or read a book about polar explorers.
  • Cultivate coziness. The people of Tromsø don’t neglect indoor comforts. In fact, Leibowitz notes, one of the greatest delights of the season is discovering various ways of being koselig (cozy). People light candles and kindle fires in fireplaces wherever possible, including in workplaces. “I do this even in California, where it gets dark at 4 or 5 p.m.,” she says. Embracing even a few koselig traditions can help you greet the coming winter with open arms — instead of an icy heart. (For tips on creating an environment of warmth and coziness, Danish-style, see “18 Ways to Find Hygge.”)
Illustration by: Andrea Cobb

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