Many dread the approaching winter — the darkness, frigid weather and lower energy levels that blow in along with cold fronts and snowstorms.
As headlines warn of “bomb cyclones” and cold snaps, most will begrudgingly grit out the winter months, grinding through dreary doldrums of January and February and counting down the days until spring. Some even succumb to seasonal affective disorder, a form of depression that tends to occur at higher rates in colder regions and is hypothesized to be related to the lack of daylight in those regions.
But what about people who live in the coldest parts of the world, where the winters are longest and the summers fleeting? Do they similarly dread the winter? Or could they offer clues about how to avoid the wintertime blues?
In August 2014 I moved to Tromsø, Norway, an island of 70,000 people located over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Tromsø’s location is so extreme that they experience two months of “polar night” each year — when the sun does not rise above the horizon.
Yet despite the extreme winter conditions, studies have shown that residents of Tromsø do not experience as much seasonal depression and wintertime mental distress as you might expect.
To try to figure out why, I spent 10 months studying how people in Tromsø cope with — and even thrive during — the long, dark winters.
My research led me to a surprising conclusion: perhaps the psychological concept of mindset is the reason for their winter well-being.
After arriving in Tromsø, I was terrified at the thought of the impending winter. Months of friends and family telling me how they could “never move some place so cold and dark” because the winter makes them “so depressed” or “so tired” had me bracing for the worst-case scenario.
But it didn’t take long for me to realize that most residents of Tromsø weren’t viewing the upcoming winter with a sense of doom. In fact, to many locals, the original question I’d planned to ask — “Why aren’t people in Tromsø more depressed during the winter?” — didn’t make sense. Most people I spoke to in Tromsø were actually looking forward to the winter. They spoke enthusiastically about the ski season. They loved the opportunities for coziness provided by the winter months.
As I experienced firsthand Tromsø residents’ unique relationship to winter, a serendipitous conversation with Alia Crum, assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University, inspired me to consider mindset as a factor that might influence Tromsø residents’ sunny perspective of the sunless winter. Crum defines mindsets as the “lenses through which information is perceived, organized and interpreted.” Mindsets serve as an overarching framework for our everyday experiences — and they can profoundly influence how we react in a variety of situations.
Crum’s work has shown that mindsets significantly influence both our physical and mental health in areas as diverse as exercise, stress and diet. For example, according to Crum’s research, individuals can hold the mindset that stress …read more