By Marlis K. Sandwith
If you’ve been around me lately, chances are you’ve heard me mention this article, by psychology researcher Kari Leibowitz, who went to the town of Tromsø, Norway to study its citizens’ seemingly low rates of wintertime depression. In her words, “how do the residents of northern Norway protect themselves from wintertime woes? And could these strategies be identified and applied elsewhere, to the same beneficial effects?” Why did she choose this particular town? There were several reasons she discusses in the article, but foremost is that Tromsø happens to be a town where the sun doesn’t rise at all from November to January—a period called “the Polar Night.”
Whoa. Can you imagine? This seemingly darkest of dark wintertimes is offset by another period in summer of “the Midnight Sun,” during May to July, when the sun never sets. But still.
Interestingly enough, Tromsø is also an island, and though it is geographically very wild and isolated, it is much more densely populated (about the same as Bellingham, WA), and has all the amenities of a small suburb or city, including a university, so it’s much different than Orcas Island. However, I’ve given a great deal of thought to wintertime blues (Leibowitz’s term is “seasonal wellbeing”) during this current winter. Over the years, I’ve known many people who have moved to the San Juan Islands only to move away again saying “I just can’t handle another winter here.” It’s a real thing. I have many friends who strategically plan their warm-weather trips during the winter months to provide a welcome break from the dark, wet and cold. I’ve done the same myself, so that’s one of the reasons this article interested me so much.
When Leibowitz talked to the people of Tromsø, what she found was that “most residents, though, simply talked about the Polar Night as if it wasn’t a big deal. Many even expressed excitement about the upcoming season and the skiing opportunities it would bring,” and that “In Tromsø, the prevailing sentiment is that winter is something to be enjoyed, not something to be endured…..winter in Tromsø would be full of snow, skiing, the northern lights, and all things koselig, the Norwegian word for “cozy.” By November, open-flame candles would adorn every café, restaurant, home, and even workspace.”
During the course of her research, she came upon the work of a few other researchers whose unique research focuses on the concept of “mindset,” which is defined by Stanford Professor Alia Crum as “the lenses through which information is perceived, organized, and interpreted.” This led Leibowitz to the question: “Can we measure positive or negative mindset toward winter? And might this wintertime mindset have something to do with Tromsø residents’ psychological well-being during the Polar Night?”
When she finally studied the residents of Tromsø in regards to wintertime mindset, the results were pretty astounding. Not only did the results indicate that wintertime mindset may figure prominently in seasonal well-being in Norway, but also, that “the Wintertime Mindset Scale had strong positive correlations with every measure of well-being we examined, including the Satisfaction with Life Scale (a widely used survey that measures general life satisfaction), and the Personal Growth Composite (a scale that measures openness to new challenges). The people who had a positive wintertime mindset, in other words, tended to be the same people who were highly satisfied with their lives and who pursued personal growth.” AND, they learned that the farther North you go, the more positive the wintertime mindset.
I’ve definitely had some winters that felt a bit difficult on a mental/emotional scale. And I’m a born-and-raised Washingtonian/Pacific Northwesterner. This place is definitely in every cell of my body. When I went to school at the University of Montana in Missoula (great town, great state, by the way), I physically missed the quality of the air at home. I often longed for the grey, rainy days that went so well with morning coffee and jazz. I missed Green. I missed Lush. I missed Salt Air. Don’t get me started; I’ll go on all day….foghorns, sound of water lapping on rock, kelp, tide pools, marine fog settling on valley farmland, the damp underbrush in a tall cedar forest, the way you can stand on a coastline and see/feel/touch the coming together and intermingling and sometimes-fury of all the elements striking each other with such force.
No matter where I’ve lived or traveled, my body, mind and soul have hearkened here. And in its defense, I must say we are quite lucky in many ways during wintertime in the San Juans, as my co-worker, Sandi Friel talks about in her post “The Shocking Truth: We Get Sun In Winter.” I’ve really noticed it this winter. For whatever reason, be it hormones, or experience, or grace, I am experiencing a positive wintertime mindset. When I say that, I do want to include a distinction that Leibowitz makes in her article: “this is not to suggest that those experiencing clinical wintertime depression, or Seasonal Affective Disorder, can magically cure themselves by adjusting their mindset. There’s a big difference between feeling cranky about the cold and clinical seasonal depression.” Big difference indeed, and one to which I am very sensitive and empathetic.
But again, I’ve been enjoying Winter, and seeing that there is a lot to enjoy on Orcas in Winter, but it does require a different mindset for some. Here’s what I’ve been noticing and loving:
1. It’s an inward time.
Dark in the morning, dark in late afternoon (somewhere around 4pm near Winter Solstice), we are not so pulled out of ourselves, out of our homes to be going and doing so many things. This can be a great time of reflection and taking stock, and of looking forward to the lighter, more outward times ahead, when we are pulled outside again, with lots to do and light until 10pm.
2. It’s a quiet time.
You read about it all the time—the frenzy of modern life. Even on little ol’ Orcas Island, we can get caught in it. But wintertime here is quiet. A great time to breathe, to focus on personal development, bring a healthy rhythm to your life. Go out on your boat for 3 hours and not see one other boat. Not a one!
3. There are fewer tourists.
Don’t get me wrong—tourism is important to our economy, but it does feel nice to have things settle down, to have the island it little more to ourselves again. This also means some of the shops and restaurants close for a bit, but I very much support my friends and neighbors taking a much-needed break, and I SO appreciate them when they open their doors again. As I write this I’m remembering that New Leaf Cafe is opening up again soon for the first time since just before Thanksgiving, and I’m over the moon with excitement!
4. I now have a candle budget.
I am all about the cozy. What did they call it in the article? Koselig! My father is German, so I like the German word that kind of goes along these lines—gemütlich. I light at least one candle every single night. We heat our house with wood, so I am attached to the sights/sounds/smells of that as well. I bought several big blankets last year to have on hand in our family room specifically for cozying up. Lighting is big for me; I don’t like harsh, overhead light, but rather, several lamps that add to the cozy feeling. Lots of tea and popcorn going on at my house in the Winter. Slippers, boot warmers, cozy jammies and robes. Cooking at home. Reading books, listening to music, playing games. Friday night kitchen dance parties. All these things make me very happy.
5. If you have the right gear, the world is very much alive.
It’s easy to sit in the dimly lit house and look out at the wet, grey, day and think how dull and lifeless it all looks. But lo and behold—-parkas! Gore-tex! Silk or wool underclothing! Layers! Bogs! Duck boots! Hats and mittens of course! All amazing items of clothing that allow you to get outside in our (very mild—-I’m sorry, but it’s true) Winter. And once you get outside, you see it—there is so much life! So many changes going on in the forest, at the beaches, on the trails, in the ponds. Your partially hibernated body (and maybe your dog as well) thanks you for allowing it into the fresh air and to experience actual movement. Then you get to come back in to your warm house alive, red-cheeked and refreshed, and life seems pretty wonderful.
6. Winter is a great time to connect with friends.
Potlucks. A cup of coffee/tea, a beer at the brewery. Game night with friends. As I said, it’s an inward time, and there isn’t a ton open in town, so our homes are where are hearts live, and where better to hang out with people we care about? Though we are very lucky on Orcas to have some of the best restaurants around, some of the best food I’ve ever eaten was prepared in the kitchens of friends on this island. Summer pulls us in so many directions. It’s fun fun fun all the time time time, so the slow time of Winter is a great time to reconnect, check in with our people. I’m always glad I did. Even though I live on an island, I sometimes go for months without seeing some of my favorites.
Don’t get me wrong; when Spring comes, I will be singing its praises. But I’ve very much come to appreciate Winter, and can most certainly see that my outlook on it has really developed over time. It’s also made me see how much I love that life on Orcas Island, while it might not always be “convenient” in the modern sense of the word, in many ways honors the seasons, and I appreciate that for myself, and for my family. We adapt and adjust, and for that I am grateful.