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What a tiny island in Norway can teach us about loving winter

What a tiny island in Norway can teach us about loving winter
Northern lights over Norway The "blues" of winter. Seattle winter.

Let’s face it: winter in the Northwest is hard work. Weathering the onslaught of grey skies and record-breaking downpours has become a part of the region’s identity to some, and a hard-won badge of honor for many. Still, between the cold, the wet, and the lack of Vitamin D, it can be hard not to spend the months between October and May huddled indoors, dreaming of sunnier days.

But in Tromsø, Norway, a municipality north of the Arctic Circle roughly the size of Manhattan, the sun often doesn’t rise at all. The city is subject to extreme light variation between seasons. Meaning that while the days get progressively longer between May and July, there is also a season from November to January where the days are entirely shrouded in dark. This is the Polar Night.

The prevailing sentiment in Tromsø is very different than the one here in the Pacific Northwest. Namely, that winter can be enjoyed, rather than endured.

According to the people of Tromsø, winter is a time to enjoy snow, skiing, the northern lights, and all things koselig—the Norwegian version of the Danish hygge, or cozy. And what better place to get cozy than one of the darkest spots on the planet?

In fact, studies have shown that residents of Tromsø have lower rates of wintertime depression overall than would be expected given the region’s high altitude and lack of sun. And according to past research, self-reported depression during the winter in Tromsø, at a latitude of 69°N, is the same as that of Montgomery County, Maryland, 41°N. For reference, Seattle sits at 47°N.

So how does Tromsø do it? What is the secret, if there is one, to conquering the dog days of winter, and why do the Norwegians seem to hold the key? Enter Kari Leibowitz, a health psychologist from Stanford University who spent months living in Tromso, determined to decode those very questions via the citizens themselves.

"If winter were a place, it would be Tromsø," she said.

Of the many potential explanations, Leibowitz’s experience suggests that one of the biggest pieces to the puzzle may be what she refers to as a “wintertime mindset,” a state of positive situational thinking that prepares one for the stresses of a long and bleak winter.

She writes: “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...Having a positive wintertime mind-set doesn’t mean denying the realities of winter or pretending you like every aspect of winter.”

And despite all the grey on the horizon, it’s undeniable that the Pacific Northwest is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Especially in winter.

“I found myself the happy victim of mindset contagion after [my friend] Fern told me she refused to call the Polar Night the mørketid, or “dark time,” preferring instead to use its alternative name, the “Blue Time” to emphasize all the color present during this period,” Leibowitz writes.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Leibowitz believes the application of a wintertime mindset to the continued lockdown could make things a little less daunting for those who worry about keeping their mood boosted in the absence of usual social engagements, especially as the darkest months approach.

So embrace the beauty and blessings of winter, Washingtonians, and have no fear: Kari Leibowitz brings her expertise at fending off the Seattle blues to the Museum, in a virtual Wintertime Mindset Workshop taught from the comfort of home.

Polar Night in Tromsø