What Scandinavians Can Teach Us About Embracing Winter

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This winter, indoor dining, bars, movie theaters and many other indoor gatherings are likely to be ill-advised, if not prohibited. If we can’t gather safely indoors, where the cold and dark of winter usually drive us, what will we do? For inspiration, we can look to Scandinavia, where people live with some of the darkest, longest winters and yet are consistently ranked as the happiest people in the world. How do they do it, and what can we learn from them?

I’m a psychologist who moved to the Arctic a few years ago to answer these questions. As part of a United States-Norway Fulbright research grant, I went to the world’s northernmost university in Tromso, Norway — over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle — to see how people thrived during the long winters.

In Tromso, the sun doesn’t rise at all for two months. They get, at most, a few hours of indirect light a day from the end of November to the end of January. Yet the residents of Tromso have low rates of seasonal depression. One reason, I learned, is that they tend to have a “positive wintertime mind-set.”

People there see the winter as a special time of year full of opportunities for enjoyment and fulfillment, rather than a limiting time of year to dread. In fact, my research found that this positive wintertime mind-set was associated with well-being, including greater life satisfaction and more positive emotions.

In the pandemic, rather than feeling depressed that the arrival of cold weather will mean that you’ll be isolated indoors, apart from friends and family, we can take lessons from Scandinavians about how to continue getting together outdoors.

Before you dismiss the idea of outdoor winter fun, think of the cold-weather traditions you may already have positive associations with, like tailgate parties, bonfires or ice skating. If you’re properly bundled up, you can continue to see friends and relatives outdoors while making the effort to minimize coronavirus risk.

Embracing winter is a hallmark of Scandinavian family life. Kids play outside at school, wearing light-reflecting vests, even when it’s dark in the daytime and snowing. According to Linda McGurk, the Swedish author of “There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather,” “Even if you haven’t grown up with this, I don’t think it’s too late.” She says you can still cultivate a positive wintertime mind-set as an adult. Those who have a positive wintertime mind-set consistently employ three strategies.

Strategy 1: Get Outside

Norway has a concept called friluftsliv, which translates roughly to “open air life.” According to Per Kare Jakobsen, a researcher at the University of Tromso who studies frilufstliv and open-air tourism, “the way Norwegians are brought up with the strong cultural tradition of frilufstliv is key to understanding our (generally quite positive) mind-set.” This means dressing for the weather — from woolen socks and leggings to safety-focused reflective strips on your jacket — and getting outside.

If the idea of spending time outdoors even when the temperatures are below freezing sounds miserable to you, Ida Solhaug, a psychology researcher at the University of Tromso, says that even Norwegians feel this way sometimes. But, she explains, once you’re actually out there, something rather magical happens. The cold actually feels good: “Although it can be a bit of a strain to get out, when you first are outside, with good clothing, it always feels better than you thought it would: less windy and less cold than it looked from inside. You feel refreshed, you feel maybe a little bit robust and vital, and you feel the benefits of being in contact with the elements.”

Dr. Solhaug’s observations are aligned with psychological research on the benefits of being in nature, which indicates that even short amounts of time spent outdoors improve our mood and our mental and physical health.

Meik Wiking, chief executive of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, refers to these benefits as coming from “outdoorphins,” and says that “when we follow people over time, we see that they are happier when outdoors.” Ms. McGurk puts it another way: “To me, going outside is really a form of self-care. I prioritize it because I do get pleasure from it. There are some days when it’s harder to get outside than others, but I know that if I do, I’m never going to regret going outside.”

And you don’t have to live next to a Norwegian fjord to get the benefits of friluftsliv. As Dr. Solhaug says, it’s simple: “Put enough clothes on so that you won’t become wet or freeze, and go out! Go to the nearest spot around you that you like: in a park, at the harbor, along a river through the city, in the woods, on a rooftop where you get a good view. Take it in! Feel the temperature, the wind, the air. Smell! See! And, importantly, bring hot coffee in your thermos.”

Strategy 2: Make Winter Special

Growing up at the Jersey Shore, I focused on the ways winter restricted me: I couldn’t lie on the beach or eat on the boardwalk. But in Norway, I learned to look for the opportunities winter provides.

One of these is intentionally using light to celebrate the darkness of winter. Indoors, families gather around the fireplace or light candles. As trend-watchers know, the embrace of anything cozy is known as hygge in Danish; koselig in Norwegian. As Mr. Wiking explains, “Hygge is part of the national identity and culture in Denmark. Hygge is the antidote for the cold winter, the rainy days, and the duvet of darkness. So while you can have hygge all year around, it is during winter that it becomes not only a necessity but a survival strategy.”

Making things hygge or koselig is not just about fuzzy blankets and warm beverages. It’s about feeling content — a sense of coziness that is not just physical, but psychological. Dr. Solhaug said that her daughter, who is in third grade, is regularly asked to take a log in her school bag so that her class can spend part of the school day outside around a bonfire made with one log from each child. This idea of coming together to celebrate the darkness outside is not only a Covid-19 friendly way to gather, it can be deeply meaningful. Lighting a flame — whether candles inside or bonfires outside — becomes a mindful moment, an opportunity to pause and enjoy.

Strategy 3: Appreciate Winter

Changing your mind-set can start with, well, changing your mind. Try appreciating winter in your thoughts and your speech. When it comes to your thoughts, start by figuring out what you like about the winter. Maybe it’s the chance to light fires, even during the daytime. Maybe it’s an opportunity to get absorbed in cooking, or reading, or art. Maybe it’s the way the world goes quiet just after a fresh snowfall. Then, whatever it is, try to consciously focus on those things. Having a positive wintertime mind-set doesn’t mean denying the realities of winter or pretending you like every aspect of winter. When it snows, it’s equally true that you might have to shovel your driveway as it is that the light is diffuse and beautiful. But which one of these you pay more attention to makes a huge difference in how you experience that snowfall.

Appoint yourself a wintertime ambassador this year, and encourage everyone around you to notice what they like about the winter as well.

If you’re trying to shift your wintertime mind-set, try starting with whatever strategy feels easiest or most appealing to you. If you’re having a hard time motivating yourself to get outside, focus first on making it special inside.

“Welcoming the shifts in seasons, instead of regretting them, puts you in contact with the rhythms of life and death, with nature, which might also help us put things in our life into perspective,” Dr. Solhaug said.


Kari Leibowitz is an interdisciplinary graduate fellow at Stanford University.