On a cold winter afternoon in December 2014, I rolled over in bed, staring blankly at my phone. It was already 12:30 in the afternoon. Yet I still felt weighed down by a leaden blanket of exhaustion. Outside, the sky remained dark. Here, in Tromsø, the sun would not appear — not today, the day after that or the day after that. Here, in the middle of December, the sun hadn’t risen for weeks.
In 2014, I moved to Norway, from sunny Atlanta to spend a year conducting research on how Norwegians managed to have low rates of wintertime depression despite their extreme winters.
Over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Tromsø is so far north that the sun doesn’t rise at all from the end of November to the end of January, a time period known as the “Polar Night.” Despite the reaction of most Americans I tell about Tromsø (who say things like “I hate the winter,” or “That would make me so depressed”), I found that the winter wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be, mostly due to the culturally enthusiastic approach to winter people took around me.
A growing body of research is highlighting the power of mindset in many areas of our lives. Perhaps the most popular example is psychologist Carol Dweck, whose work suggests having a “growth mindset” can help children succeed in school.
A slew of new studies suggests this type of approach can help people embrace winter. While light therapy is currently one of the top therapies for seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or milder cases of the winter blues, others argue that helping people change their attitudes toward winter can have even more of an impact.
The winter blues
SAD, a pattern of clinical depression that manifests seasonally, has been long misunderstood.
Most often, people with SAD experience depressive symptoms that increase in the winter and then decrease in the spring (although it is possible to have summertime seasonal affective disorder). In the definitive SAD guide Winter Blues, psychologist Norman Rosenthal estimates that about 6 percent of the population deals with SAD.
Many others suffer from what Rosenthal calls “the winter blues.” These are a milder form of SAD which cause people to feel less motivated, more lethargic and tired, and generally unhappier.
The prevailing theory is that SAD, and humans’ general malaise with winter, stems from a lack of daylight. The “latitude hypothesis” of SAD, which is now hotly contested, suggests that as you go farther north or south of the equator, where winter darkness is more extreme, rates of SAD should increase.
But Tromsø provides an interesting case study. Given how far north the town is, rates of SAD in Tromsø are much lower than we would expect. This was part of what drew me to Tromsø in the first place. Although I focused on understanding peoples’ mindsets, rather than specifically looking at SAD, my study found that many people in Norway did express positive feelings about the winter there, and that people even embraced winter more as you traveled farther north.
They greatly benefited from cultivating what we defined as a “positive wintertime mindset.”
Rather than framing the season as a limiting time of year, Norwegians tend to see it as full of opportunities: for outdoor recreation, such as skiing, gathering around bonfires and simply walking in nature, and for all things koselig, the Norwegian word for “cozy,” corollary to the Danish hygge — indoor pleasures such as knitting, calm evenings, dinner by candlelight and reading books.
People who lived this way were more likely to experience positive emotions and pursue experiences that led to personal growth.
Mind over matter
So what gives?
For years, sun lamps, which mimic the effect of the sun to provide light therapy and counteract the lack of daylight in winter, have been one of the most popular treatments for SAD.
There’s a lot of research that backs up SAD lamps. As long as you invest in the right model, exposing yourself to its light daily can help minimize the impact of depression during the winter and make you feel a bit more alive. Yet like most things, they’re not a cure-all. People who experience depression in winter might benefit from other therapies, like antidepressants or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), to help combat seasonal depression.
If you don’t live in a country like Norway, which culturally has a positive attitude towards winter, CBT may be your balm. That’s what Kelly Rohan, a professor of psychology at the University of Vermont, wanted to understand in 2015. She investigated whether people with SAD could develop kinder thoughts toward winter through CBT. As with depression overall, people living with SAD tend to have negative, automatic thoughts that impact their mood and wellbeing. During CBT, patients are encouraged to question these negative thoughts.
Rohan had a group of patients, all who had a negative attitude toward winter, talk in therapy sessions about things they enjoyed during winter, like painting, knitting and other activities. Her research suggests her approach is successful: In long-term follow-ups, her CBT approach is more effective than traditional light therapy at preventing winter relapse of SAD.
“Patients have thinking and behavior patterns that contribute to seasonal affective disorder,” she says. “If you change some of those, you might better manage your experience in the winter months.”
Since leaving Tromsø, I’ve helped thousands of people work on their wintertime mindsets and learn to embrace winter. Many of the strategies I recommend parallel Rohan’s approaches in her CBT sessions.
Make winter special.
Find the opportunities in winter. Rather than focusing on what you can’t do, ask yourself what makes winter feel special. Take advantage of winter nature or embrace cozy, slow evenings inside. In my wintertime mindset workshops, people come up with dozens of winter-friendly activities: skiing and snowshoeing, drinking hot chocolate, eating soups and stews, writing poetry and more.
Notice your thoughts.
Like the patients in Rohan’s CBT sessions, you can try to remain more self-aware about your thoughts about winter. When it snows, you can either focus on the scenery or the fact that you’ll have to shovel your driveway. What you focus on will influence your experience of that snowstorm. By noticing any automatic negative thoughts and shifting them, you can learn to love winter.
Putting on the proper layers to feel warm and getting outside, no matter the weather, is also a surefire way to embrace winter. Research supports that even short walks in nature or time spent moving can provide a mood boost. Psychologist Andrew Sweeney says adolescents often experience increased irritability and depression in the winter, so he encourages families to get outside, even if it’s gray. Once they overcome their initial resistance, they see the benefits of spending time outdoors, even when it’s cold out.
When I think back to my time in Norway now, I don’t remember the cold. I remember falling down while cross-country skiing among the snow-laden pine trees, noticing leaves gilded in ice while waiting for the bus and sitting in my bedroom watching Netflix, surrounded by soft candlelight. I remember the magic of winter.