Embracing Winter

Like many who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (“SAD,”) I find winter extremely challenging– a season to be endured but not necessarily enjoyed. This winter has been especially cold and snowy. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy sitting by a cozy fire, reading a good book and savoring warm, hearty foods. But I am mostly an active, outdoor person and I find it difficult to remain indoors for large chunks of each day. 

I wondered how those in the Scandinavian countries, who live with some of the longest, darkest winters, are consistently ranked as the happiest people in the world. Then, I discovered the research of Psychologist, Ida Solhaug, who traveled to the world’s most northernmost University in Tromso, Norway, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, to ponder this question. In Tromso, the sun doesn’t rise from late November through January. Dr. Solhaug found that residents of Tromso literally thrive in winter and have among the lowest rates of SAD which she attributed, in large part, to their adoption of a positive winter mind-set. Instead of dreading the season as I do, the people of Tromso people view winter as a special time of year, full of opportunities for enjoyment and fulfillment. 

Embracing winter is a hallmark of Scandinavian family life. Kids play outside at school, wearing light-reflecting vests, even when it’s dark in the daytime and snowing. Dr. Solhaug contends that even if you didn’t grow up this way, you can still cultivate a positive wintertime mind-set as an adult. A key strategy in attaining this mindset is to get outdoors. 

Most warm-weather people, this author included, literally shiver at the thought of heading outdoors in freezing temperatures. But, as Dr. Solhaug explains, “Once you’re out there, something special happens. The cold actually feels good. You feel robust and vital, and you reap the benefits of being in contact with nature.” Even short amounts of time spent outdoors can improve our mood and boost our physical and mental health. Meik Wiking, CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen, describes the benefits of nature as “OUTDOORPHINS.”  Simply put, people are happier when they are outdoors, assuming, of course, they are dressed appropriately.

With this backdrop, coupled with the knowledge that I always feel best when I am outdoors, I challenged myself to bundle up, get outside more and embrace winter– Scandinavian style. Here’s what happened…

Winter Adventure #1: Pond Skating. During a long stretch of bitter cold in January, all our neighborhood ponds and lakes froze, a rare occurrence in our region. During one very special weekend, a group of neighbors gathered to ice skate on one of the frozen lakes. Children and adults of all ages laced up skates, grabbed hockey sticks and frolicked on the ice, as spectators listened to music and drank hot chocolate. Neighbors chatted amiably and smiled joyfully at each other as we took in this magical real-life Norman Rockwell scene. 

Winter Adventure #2: Snow Day & Doggie Play. The next day, mother nature gifted us with a huge snowstorm in the Northeast– two feet of snow blanketed the streets, lawns and woods all around our house. I let the serenity of this winter wonderland envelop me, losing myself in the white vastness.

“Snow brings a special quality with it… the ability to stop life as you know it dead in its tracks.”

––Nancy Hatch Woodward

I took the dog outside to play. He frolicked animatedly, hopping like a bunny over the deep snowdrifts, rolling contentedly on his back and making doggie snow angels. I smiled at my pup’s childlike bliss as he played, reminiscing about my young children building snowmen, throwing snowballs and making snow angels. Pure, spontaneous and carefree play. My frenzied dog burrowed his entire head in the snow, then came flying out and shook his body, causing a cascading avalanche. And, for a few brief moments outside with my dog, I recaptured the simple wonder of a snow day. 

Winter Adventure #3: Snowshoe Hiking. For hiking enthusiasts like me, snow shoeing is a perfect winter sport that combines beautiful scenery, solitude and great exercise.  It is inexpensive, easy to learn and far gentler on the body than skiing or snowboarding. You can snowshoe virtually anywhere– in the woods or in a nearby park, field or across a golf course. This winter, I’ve caught the snowshoe bug. Each time I venture out, my senses are heightened. Trekking across our regular golf course, I am awed by the views and new perspective I have of the once-familiar golf holes, looking so different now glazed in white. Snowshoe hiking is always a rigorous workout, and even my husband (who does not like to work out) finds it fun and invigorating.

Winter Adventure #4: Lake Walk. One morning, after yet another snowfall, I walked around our favorite neighborhood lake. The sun shone brightly, illuminating the dazzling snow-covered trees. I relished this winter sun, which warmed my soul. I breathed in the fresh air and felt the cold burn my lungs. My cheeks flushed with the sting of winter. Still, I felt energized. My furry companion was enjoying himself as well, trotting along with wagging tail, stopping occasionally to burrow his head underneath the snow. We walked side-by-side in silence, one set of footprints, one set of pawprints, making fresh tracks in the powdery snow.

Embracing winter has reminded me that there are wonderful, magical moments in wintertime. But, as the days get shorter and the temperatures drop, it is easy to lose sight of the hope we felt as kids waking up on a snow day…. In adulthood, I am learning how to rekindle this wonder and revel in the joy of winter by shifting my perspective, as Lewis Carroll suggests.

As of this writing, there are 24 days remaining until spring. Until then, I will continue to embrace winter as best I can.

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