You can get inspiration to manage the dark months ahead of the Norwegians, according to Kari Leibowitz.
Leibowitz, who will be enrolling for a PhD in social psychology at Stanford University, has learned how Norwegians deal with winter and “polar nights,” a period that begins on November 21 when the sun sets in Norway and never rises for another two months. He spent a year at the University of Tromsø, 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, to better understand how humans survived – and actually succeeded – in both extreme and unusual circumstances.
He found that people with a good winter attitude – including their thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes during the season – were associated with their health, including health satisfaction and personal growth.
Leibowitz explores the psychological and social power of health, with a focus on doctor-patient relationships. She also works with psychiatrist Alia Crum at Stanford Mind & Body Lab, where they learn how the mind can make a positive difference to emotional and physical well-being.
Here, Leibowitz discusses some of his findings – data from his 238 Norwegian research published recently in the International Journal of Wellbeing – and how his winter and indoor work can provide comfort in these difficult times:
Q: What did you learn from studying, and living with them, in Norway? Is there anything you were surprised to learn about them, as well as yourself?
A: I learned a lot! How delicious brunost – the special cheese, the little brown caramel-like they usually eat in waffles – and how good the hot reindeer beef is. How to dress appropriately for winter weather – wool layers are all key! But I also learned that – to my surprise – Norwegians love winter! This really surprised me – I grew up in Jersey Shore hating winter.
At first I understood how they survived the winter. But Norwegians saw little of it as something that would survive — they saw it as an opportunity for many of their hobbies: outdoor activities such as cross-country skiing but also special, comfortable indoors. Instead of a cold night like a dark time, I have actually learned that it is a time of wonderful light – blue light for a few hours a day, beautiful colors of sunset as the sun rises from below the horizon, and, of course, amazing Northern Lights. They really showed me that it is possible to love winter, and there I learned to love winter too.
Q: And what did you learn about their well-being?
A: In our combined study, a survey of Norwegians in three different areas – Oslo, Tromsø, and Svalbard – conducted at the end of January, we found that positive winter mood was associated with every social maturity we looked at, including health satisfaction, positive emotions, mental growth, and growth personal.
In other words, the Norwegian people who had a good winter mindset were also often happier.
Q: How can this mindset help people as they take refuge in an area during an epidemic?
A: It can be especially easy to love the winter in Tromsø — it’s magical, surrounded by snowcapped mountains and rivers. But I think the people of Tromsø have ideas for making winter so good that people can use it wherever you are. The people of Tromsø see winter as an opportunity, and in the US we tend to focus only on the winter conditions and the things we cannot do.
After all, when we take refuge in a place, there is much we cannot do and it is easy to focus on that. Nor do I suggest that people deny this fact or ignore all the suffering and loss and things we have lost this year. But since we are all trapped in a situation that no one wants to be in, how can we focus on a) what potential? and b) the things we enjoy during the winter, bringing us little comfort?
For me, this is the first year that I will not be going home to be with my family in New Jersey for the holidays, and I am very sorry for not doing that. But I try to focus on the fact that instead of flying across the country and running to see all my family members, this year I can have a really relaxing holiday and focus on expressing my love for my family by posting and arranging Zoom calls. So those are some of the opportunities I will try to take advantage of this year. And this idea of getting a chance at hard things doesn’t just come from the winter mind — it is supported by a lot of psychological research, including the performance of Stanford Mind & Body Lab, as Alia Crum’s work on mental stress.
Another big part of this idea is to get out – the Norwegians love to work in the winter, and even have a saying, “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.” Given that we are all stuck at home right now, prioritizing curfews and travels and spending time outdoors even in “bad” weather will be very important to keep people’s spirits and emotions in this winter.
Q: Is there anyone you would like to add to how your research works in the current era?
A: The thing I like about the minds is that they have a place of confusion – it’s not just about telling people to look the bright side, think positively or get a silver lining.
I think it is very important to let people grieve and grieve and not to alleviate the extreme hardships that people face. Instead, it is about focusing on what we can control and trying to make the best of a bad situation. So if you hate the speed of the dark, you can try to focus on the opportunity to light candles and get some comfort ahead of time, how it can help you fall asleep – something I’ve always tried and failed to do .
I encourage people to start small and get one or two things they like this winter, maybe one or two things they do to make this challenging season a chance, and focus on those. And personally I would be thinking of this winter as a kind of sleep all winter, a time dedicated to peace and relaxation and meditation, and that kind of mental relaxation can help us get out of the epidemic with a clear idea of what we are and how we want to live our lives.