People in Norway have little (if any) winter sunlight, so they experience more SAD (seasonal affective disorder) than people living further south, right?
Actually… not true. But how can that be?
Oh, and we can’t forget that winter is colder in northern countries like Norway. And yet…
“Rather than finding the wintertime dark and depressing, those living in the high north often find ways to appreciate the unique joys of winter. Our research indicates that this positive mindset towards winter is strongly associated with wintertime wellbeing, including satisfaction with life and positive emotions.” (Leibowitz & Vitterso, 2020).
Want to improve your winter mindset? I have three strategies for you.
Our first strategy: notice beauty in our natural surroundings. Not exactly a new suggestion from me, but it can be harder to do in winter. It's easy to huddle into ourselves on cold dark mornings, and focus only on the task at hand.
I’m impressed with Linda’s ability to notice winter’s beauty, despite a challenging commute:
“I struggle with the sometimes dramatic change of temperature, which I find hard on my body, and the fact that I have to do a lot of my driving in the dark now. What I’ve been trying to do is observe the moon and sky every car trip.
"So, in the mornings, when I’m scraping the car windshield in the dark, I find the position of the moon and see how it changes, and as I am driving my daughter to school, I cloud watch (when it’s safe).
"One thing I find almost surreal is how I’ll be driving into a gorgeously lit up sky—perhaps with pinks and oranges—and then when I look in my rear-view mirror, the sky will be totally dark.” Linda Schueler, CHT, Ontario
Strategy #1: when focused on a routine task, we can look for beauty in our surroundings. Even in the cold dark, we can broaden our view to observe the moon cycle and everchanging sky.
Ask yourself: What “unique joys of winter” are available to me? Sights and activities that are only available in winter?
It’s about looking for things to enjoy, to expand our world. It helps to be comfortably dressed for the conditions, so our bodies don’t have the urge to huddle and hurry.
That physical posture of openness that comes from being warmly dressed can extend to the mind. Is our viewpoint narrow (scraping the windshield) or wide (noticing the beauty of early winter morning)?
As well as looking around at the sky, look closely before scraping ice off the windshield.
Mindset science seems to border on woo woo ideas, telling us that we can change our reality just by thinking about it. That we have the ability to manifest anything we want, and if we don’t succeed, well, it’s our fault. I don’t like this as a wholesale way of thinking, because it tries to shame me when things don’t go well in my life. (I find it most refreshing to reject shaming.)
And yet, credible mindset research shows that there’s at least some truth to the idea that our thoughts and beliefs impact, even create, our lived experience.
So, let’s get on the same page about what mindsets are and why they matter to our wellbeing:
“Mindsets are selective viewpoints that help us simplify and organize complex information, and they include things like our thoughts, beliefs, and expectations. Recent literature on the concept of mindset suggests that mindsets play a role in many aspects of human functioning, including health and wellness” (Leibowitz & Vitterso, 2020).
Applying that to winter, we might think that winter is miserable and only want to stay indoors, or we might thoroughly enjoy a snowy landscape that allows us to do activities we can only do with snow.
Or maybe, like me, both are true for you. Mindsets can include paradoxes.
They’re also strongly affected by the people around us.
“Living in an area where everyone is enjoying the winter makes a positive wintertime mindset more easily attainable than living in a community where it is the norm to complain about winter weather” (Leibowitz & Vitterso, 2020).
Is it possible that we’re negatively affected by the talk around us? Lots of conversation and media attention on the lack of daylight, so much emphasis on the most dramatic weather events, and lots of press about SAD (seasonal affective disorder) in recent years.
What we hear around us is part of our experience of winter and bound to influence our mindset. We’re impressionable.
Here’s strategy #2: Understanding that we’re impressionable can allow us to choose what we take on (or don’t take on) from the people and the media around us. That’s a mini mindset intervention right there.
We can also choose to be impressed by the research from Norway, which shows that: “A long, dark winter may not be objectively good or bad for mental health and wellbeing. Rather, individuals’ subjective experiences and interpretations of wintertime may determine winter’s influence on wellbeing” (Leibowitz & Vitterso, 2020).
The authors go on to say that they don’t mean that people with clinical levels of seasonal affective disorder can simply ‘snap out of it’. Nor do I mean to sound glib about winter with the privileges that I have (you can read my story below).
What is intended is to: “add a positive dimension to the discussion of wintertime mental health and illness, encouraging individuals and communities to strive not only to be free of wintertime depression, but to pursue wintertime flourishing as well” (Leibowitz & Vitterso, 2020).
Strategy #3: Get to know your winter mindset by sharing your story with friends and colleagues:
How can you work with what is? You might surprise yourself by (re)discovering winter activities that delight you.
I cherish cozy time spent indoors: reading, working at my computer, enjoying warm comfort food…
I have mixed feelings about going outdoors. It takes energy! I resent the time it takes to bundle up, the uncertainty about what to wear (for cold, wind, activity…). Will I be too hot? Too cold? It’s not unusual for me to go back inside to add another layer. My neck has to be warm, and I find that two layers on my legs makes me forget the cold.
Once I’ve got the clothing right, I’m delighted to be outdoors in snow or rain. No problem (unless it’s coming at me sideways at high speed – there are limits!).
When I’ve been out once in a day, I’ll even find excuses to go out again: change the hummer food, empty the compost bin, shovel the walk… Or check out the sledding and boarding crowd across the street on the park slope.
And yet, by the next day I have to persuade myself again. Go figure!
Some days I manage to drag myself out in the afternoon for a mental break. After computer work, I crave cool air, daylight, and exercise to chase away the cobwebs. Once out, I feel more alive, more energized. Able to focus again.
But the next day I still resist when I’m feeling lazy and lethargic! It's reassuring to know that it's normal and healthy to have less energy and need more sleep when there are fewer hours of sunlight available. So I relish the laziness and still get work done and get outside.
Over the years I've spent lots of time outdoors in winter. Sledding and building snow forts in our Montreal front yard, where the snow plow dumped mounds of snow to play with. Cross-country skiing at the Chateau Lake Louise, where my winter job was to clear ice and snow from pathways and roofs. Attending school on the prairies where the wind chill factor meant a thick scarf up to my eyes, head down and walk fast! And many winters cycling to horticultural therapy jobs in Vancouver, and snowshoeing in the north shore mountains.
Overall, not surprising that my winter mindset leans towards the positive. Reminding myself how much I enjoy being outdoors, plus my husband and I taking turns to nudge each other, gets me putting on the layers and going out the door.
If you’d like to improve your winter mindset, it might be enough to heighten your awareness with these three strategies:
Do keep in mind that it’s completely normal and healthy to have less energy and need more sleep when there’s less natural light. As much as possible, allow for self-care. Winter is such a delicious time to go out, and to nestle in.
Leibowitz, K., & Vittersø, J. (2020). Winter is coming: Wintertime mindset and wellbeing in Norway. International Journal of Wellbeing, 10(4). https://core.ac.uk/reader/337392350
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