Winter Mindset: Lessons from the Norwegians
Dr. Nicola McCaffrey (DClinPsy.) Clinical Psychologist

Winter Mindset: Lessons from the Norwegians

My calendar reminds me that fall is here for sure. Saying goodbye to lighter evenings, welcoming cold winds and generally reading ourselves to battle the elements. This shift often brings the same question in through my clinic doors - how am I going to survive this winter with the cold and the dark? For inspiration, we don’t have to look too far. The Scandinavian countries which are consistently ranked amongst the happiest on earth also contend with some of the longest and darkest winters.
04.November 2020 Dr. Nicola McCaffrey (DClinPsy.) Clinical Psychologist

A good example of this can be found in the small town of Tromsø, which is located some 300 kilometres above the artic circle. We might therefore understandably expect the people of Tromsø to suffer significant psychological distress over the winter months as the sun rarely climbs above the horizon. Research conducted in 2015 that looked at seasonal depression rates in Tromsø, however, found that the rates were significantly lower than we might expect. In fact the research indicated that the wellbeing of the towns citizens fluctuates only marginally over the course of the year.

How do they do it and what can we learn from them?

The answer to this is perhaps found in their attitude rather than in their behaviour.

A positive winter mindset acts as a protective factor that allows the residents of Tromsø not only to survive the long winters but also to thrive in them. Changing your mindset and seeing opportunity rather than misery is key. Mindset is like a lens through which information is passed and processed. It serves as a framework for our everyday experiences and can profoundly influence both our physical and mental health. How we perceive and frame our everyday experiences can significantly influence the way that we feel. For example those who view stressful events as “challenges”, with an opportunity to learn and grow, tend to cope significantly better than those who focus more on the alarming and anxiety provoking aspects of the experience. Somebody with a positive winter mindset can see the opportunities for enjoyment and fulfilment that the season brings, rather than just the restrictions of it. Norwegians in particular both embody and live their positive winter attitudes. Whilst many of us view winter as a season to endure, residents of Norway view their long dark winters as something to celebrate.

In general Norwegians celebrate winter and all of the opportunities that it alone holds. Winter marks the beginning of cosy family nights filled with hearty food, warm candle light, and quality time with friends and family. It also marks the start of ski season. An opportunity to move, take in the beautiful seasonal nature and bask in the light bouncing off of the fresh white slopes.

This positive winter mindset exists from the remote arctic north of Tromsø to the more urban Oslo, where there is a commitment to celebrating time outdoors, no matter the season. Dressing well for the outdoors is something of an art in Norway and means that there are fewer restrictions to getting outdoors when the weather is cold and biting.

Before you dismiss this idea entirely as unrealistic positive thinking, take a moment to reflect on the already available positive winter mindset that you might have cultivated over the years. Perhaps you have positive associations with Halloween, Bonfire night, mince pie parties or ice skating. These are the building blocks that you can build upon. Even if a positive winter mindset is not something that you have grown up with it is something that you can cultivate as an adult. It is possible to change our appraisal of a situation consciously.

Typically positive winter mindset embraces three consistent philosophies:

1. Get outdoors
In Norway we have a concept called friluftsliv, which translates roughly to “open air life”. This is a lifestyle here but it is something that everyone can adopt to a greater or lesser degree. It involves dressing for the conditions and getting outdoors to spend time in nature. If the idea of spending time in the cold and dark doesn’t sounds appealing to you, rest assured that even the Norwegians feel this way at times too. But if you can get past the struggle of putting on all of your layers and getting out, often something magical happens there. We starts to enjoy the air, the temperature and the experience. The weather, which looked less than appealing from indoors, isn’t so bad once you are in it. You might even find yourself refreshed and revitalised.

2. Make the season special
Here in Norway warm soft lights are used to make the darkness special. Whether it is sitting around the fireplace or lighting candles to create a cosy atmosphere, for the Norwegians light is one of the hallmarks of the winter season.

3. Appreciation
Notice and savour what you find special in the season. Verbalise it and share it with those around you. If you find yourself stuck in your old mindset then start a gratitude exercise where you have to seek out three things to appreciate in each day. These can be anything from the silence of snowfall to the smells in the kitchen when Christmas cookies are being baked. It doesn’t matter what you land on it is the searching your mind that makes the neurological shifts to a more positive winter mindset.

Mindset really can transform the way we experience our world.

Warm wishes,

Dr. Nicola McCaffrey (DClinPsy.)
Clinical Psychologist

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