How to really stay happy when the days are getting dark and cold

photo-426Over at Fast Company, I have a post up on “The Norwegian Secret To Enjoying A Long Winter.” I had originally planned to write a piece on how to stay happy when it’s getting dark and cold, and give standard advice like get some exercise, go outside at lunch, listen to upbeat music, etc.

But then I came across research from Kari Leibowitz. She spent a year in Tromsø, Norway, on a Fulbright scholarship. Tromsø is so far north that from late November to late January, the sun never rises above the horizon. Yet despite this polar night, there are relatively low rates of seasonal depression. She wanted to see what she could learn that people could use elsewhere. She went around asking people “why don’t you have seasonal depression?” Their response was “why would we?”

It turns out that in these small communities in the far north, winter is viewed as something to be celebrated, rather than endured. If you make a mindset shift to embrace the season, there are really many wonderful things about it.

First, there are fun activities such as skiing and outdoor ice skating that can only happen in winter. There are beautiful wintry scenes as the sunrise/sunset type light plays on the snow. Second, there’s a Norwegian word, “koselig,” that means (roughly) coziness. They bundle up in sweaters and light candles and sit around fireplaces and eat comfort foods. Think the best parts of Christmas, without the stress. There’s also a real community aspect to it — that we are all in this frozen world together. So people get together with friends and hold festivals. They make sure to get outside, because there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.

I’ve been pondering this as my part of the world tilts toward winter. The time change means that it’s dark around 5 p.m. Waiting at the cold start of the Rock n’ Roll half marathon last week was just a glimpse of the weather that’s going to roll in.

But I’m trying to adopt this mindset shift, because there are many things I do love about winter. November is one of my favorite months — starting with the bright fall colors and ending with the coziness of Thanksgiving and the anticipation of the Christmas season. I don’t ski but I do like walking outside and looking at the dollops of snow on evergreens looking like whipped cream. Coffee is lovely on cold mornings. I sleep well under down blankets. I’m going to buy myself some new sweaters and maybe light some candles on my desk. If I can take the coziness of Christmas through to February, then it’ll be a great season — even if it’s dark and cold.

In other news: It’s the opposite of polar night, but I spent the days around the summer solstice in Trondheim, Norway one year. I also wrote a novel called Trondheim 227 that’s about a biotech genius gone rogue. It has never seen the light of day, alas.

23 thoughts on “How to really stay happy when the days are getting dark and cold

  1. I really like this — a reminder that we can choose how we respond to the ‘misery’ of winter. I also love the concept of ‘no bad weather.’ Let’s remember this at the start of the next half-marathon in a few weeks!

  2. I love this idea! I’m already starting to get a bummed about how early it gets dark now. I think I’m going to make a list of all the things I enjoy about autumn and winter to remind myself to do them instead of brooding in a corner.

  3. I live in the Bay Area and I have been getting grief from my friends in four-season environments about my rain nostalgia and complaints about the sunny weather. It is all about balance, really. After three years of drought and almost constant sunshine I was excited to finally get some real rain this week. I got to pull out my coat and boots, and after getting chilled outside cuddle up with a blanket, cup of tea and a cat. Getting cozy is really never as good if you don’t get a little cold and wet first, and it is hard to appreciate the sunshine if you never get the gloomy skies. I’m excited about getting to bed earlier and reading more now that the days are shorter. OK, yes, I’m a little weird, but there are so many exciting things that winter brings.

  4. Last year I learned to ski. I didn’t think this was possible at the age of 40. My husband and I took lessons along with my 8 year old daughter, while my older boys were off snowboarding. I must say, I was super proud of myself. I am not remotely good at it, but I love it. I honestly can’t wait for the snow to hit this year.

    1. @Denise- good for you! I took lessons a few years ago, and my take-away is that it’s just not my thing. Nothing against it, but I don’t like heights (ski lift), and I know from biking that I don’t like going fast down hills. I have done cross country skiing a few times and generally like that.

  5. Love this! I fight really hard to stay positive in the darkest months—this is just the kind of mindset shift I need (and any excuse to eat comfort food is a plus in my book!) I do love that “cozy” feeling, and the feel of walking in fresh snow and the sunsets & light are breathtaking this time of year. I will admit though, that sometimes winter feels just so darn hard with little kids when we really can’t stay outside all day.

  6. It’s funny – I am from northern-ish Canada, and really don’t love the winter, though have spent a lot of time living through it. Now I live in the Midwest, and while the winters are not quite so intense, they are still pretty cold/dreary. What I’ve found is that whenever we visit Canada over Christmas, we have a great time doing winter activities (skating, snowmobiling, bonfires…). Also, we make a point to get out and go for walks every day even if it’s really cold. The interesting thing is that we are just in the right mindset to embrace and enjoy the weather. Every time you go outside, you put on about four layers, including two pairs of socks, thick snow pants and maybe long underwear, huge boots, scarf, etc. But then you are warm enough to stay outside and play for a while. Now, where I live, people don’t necessarily even own winter boots or snow pants or proper winter jackets because it just doesn’t get cold or snow often enough to warrant it. However, it still gets pretty cold and snows sometimes, so because you are unprepared or look at it as a huge inconvenience, you just don’t even go outside at all. After going to Canada, I always feel a renewed toughness in being able to face the cold back home.

    I also spent a few years living on the West Coast, where there wasn’t much of a winter (just rain), and the one thing I noticed is that the transition between winter and spring was so subtle that I really missed out on the spring “euphoria” that I used to feel every year. Growing up in Eastern Canada, there was just such a distinct and sharp transformation that occurred: the snow melted, the days got longer, it got warmer, and you went from being bundled up in snow gear one week to running shoes and a light sweater the next. It was so awesome.

  7. Hence the cozy British custom of afternoon tea right when darkness starts to draw in.

    I find I get a lot more writing done in weather when I wouldn’t rather be outdoors.

  8. Your article was shared by a couple of my Facebook friends and I didn’t even realize until the end that it was yours 🙂

    Here in Seattle it gets dark at 4pm and we definitely are a city full of complainers about the weather, so I loved these novel suggestions. A friend of mine moved to Denmark so I’ve been interested in reading articles about it, and came across the idea of “hygge” and am trying to figure out how to replicate that in our house this winter.

    1. @ARC- so, on the sharing front…the piece has now been shared 75k times, which is up from 50k this morning. It’s fun on one level, though with the vagaries of the internet, I am not sure what of it will stick. I only seem to have gotten about 50 new twitter followers, even though the tweet people share has my handle in it. There may be a post to be written on the fleeting nature of trending pieces on the internet…

  9. Also, scrapbooker Ali Edwards leads a project called “December Daily” where she makes a scrapbook album detailing something fun for each day of the month leading up to Christmas. This year I’ll be doing it as well, though I don’t pressure myself to have something for each day. But the project does make me go out of my way to DO more fun things so I can add them to my album 🙂

  10. I love the winter. I’m an avid gardener, but it means for some intense workdays, as I’m also self-employed. So in the winter, there is a ton more me-time. I definitely do a lot “koselig”. I read by the fire, I tinker with small projects, and I plot next year’s full-on gardening assault. Everything has it’s season, and winter is my rest time.

    1. @Shanna- I like thinking about the rhythm of years, something that gardening definitely inspires. Personally, I’m kind of glad to be coming out of the fall sports season. Winter is less intense, which means some more downtime (though granted my kids will probably use it to sit in front of screens).

  11. This really works, I come from the north of Siberia and we do enjoy the winter a lot. However, slow spring which arrives only in May makes March and April really difficult to tolerate. I am thinking i should check how Tromsø residents deal with those two months 🙂

  12. The British media have picked up on the Danish concept of ‘hygge’ over the last month or so. It has become a delightful war cry in our house as I have invested in candles and cushions and throws to make the house cosy. Our Bristish autumn has turned cloudy, so embracing the cosines has really helped us to deal with the lack of light over the past few weeks. Loving it!

  13. If there was snow here, that would be fun, but instead there are endless weeks of darkness and rain. I still go out, but it’s not fun. I wrote a post yesterday about how I get through it. Exercise and my light box are the ticket for me 🙂

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