What the happiest cold-weather countries on the planet know about winter
Ease your seasonal slump with this international recipe for winter cheer.
You wake up in the dark. You drive to work in the dark. And following a long, hard day at the office, you go back home in the—you guessed it—dark. In between, Old Man Winter greets you with an icy slap in the face every time you go outdoors. Ah—’tis the season.
As daylight wanes and darkness pays a visit once again, it’s not uncommon for mood and energy levels to take a nosedive right along with the temperature. Don’t worry—it’s normal for you to feel a little down during wintertime. About 1 in 7 Americans deal with this sort of seasonal irritability and sluggishness.
Ironically, if you look closely at the World Happiness Report for 2019, you’ll notice the top 10 is peppered with cold-weather countries that deal with even lower temperatures and longer periods of darkness than most parts of the U.S. Apparently, there’s a lot to learn about how to manage frigid winters and come out smiling on the other end. And these countries might just know the secret to altering your mindset and avoiding the blues when it’s cold outside.
Get out and get moving
In countries where winters are not too long or unbelievably cold—such as the U.S.—bad weather is enough of an excuse to stay inside in the comfort of our beds. But in colder parts of the world, this is not an option, solely because that would mean staying in for a big stretch of the year.
During the coldest months, days and nights in northern Norway are indistinguishable, as pitch black endures for months and average low temperatures (Fahrenheit) can be in the single digits. Despite these extreme conditions, Norwegians strongly believe in the philosophical concept of friluftsliv (pronounced free-loofts-liv), or “open-air life.”
During her year abroad, Kari Leibowitz, a health psychologist and former U.S.-Norway Fulbright scholar, noticed people enjoying nature even in the most frigid conditions. “My advisor at the university would commute to work every day by cross-country ski,” she says.
That love for the outdoors is prevalent across Scandinavia. There’s even a saying in the region that sums up this bold embrace of Mother Nature: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.”
And that applies to adults and young children alike. In these countries, regardless of the weather, playgrounds are filled with kids running around every day. Scandinavians also believe snow is calming, and parents will literally bundle their babies up and leave them outside to nap. It’s not uncommon to see strollers lined up outside of a coffee shop window, for example, as parents keep an eye on their children from inside.
Find your inner warmth
Across the Norwegian Sea, Icelanders have learned to cultivate their inner lives better than most. By some accounts, the country has more writers, books published, and books read per person than any other nation on Earth.
Literature is deeply rooted in Icelandic culture, says Kristín Viðarsdóttir, project manager with the Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature office: “It is part of our heritage and identity to value literature and writers and to think of ourselves as the ‘saga nation.’”
We might also learn something from the Swedes and their fika—a term for the break devoted to coffee (or tea), sweet treats, and socializing. More than a mere coffee break, fika embodies the cultural ideal of slowing down to savor life’s little pleasures. Many Swedish employers even build fika into the workday, which, in turn, helps productivity. Research reveals occasional rests can renew energy, heighten attention, enhance decision-making, and boost creativity.
The Danes have their secrets, too. Hygge is a defining characteristic of Danish life that translates roughly to “coziness.” It includes activities such as putting your phone and laptop away, lighting candles, sipping hot drinks, and unwinding in front of a fireplace.
Hygge is a feeling and an atmosphere, says Rebekka Andersen, an analyst at the Happiness Research Institute, a think tank in Copenhagen that explores why some societies are happier than others. You can be alone and hygge, or you can be with other people and hygge, but if you have company, it has to be people you really like or love, because it is crucial to feel accepted, respected, and safe, she says.
This time spent with the people we love is part of what gets us through winter and is an essential finding in happiness research, Andersen points out. One of the longest-running studies of adult life, for instance, has revealed that quality relationships keep us happier and healthier.
Blend icy with hot
While a plunge into icy waters might be reserved as a once-in-a-lifetime thrill or an annual fundraiser for Americans, there are other parts of the world where winter swimming is a common pastime. “We go swimming in the sea all year round,” Andersen says. “When you do that, you can call yourself a Viking.”
Some have theorized that exposure to cold water could have an antidepressant effect by raising levels of mood-regulating chemicals in the blood and brain. Similarly, a Finnish study found that regular winter swimming led to an improvement in mood as well as a reduction of tension and fatigue.
A brief 30-second to one-minute dip in winter water can spark a “hormone storm,” according to Hannu Rintamäki, who devoted decades to studying the effects of Arctic weather on the human body. This chemical cocktail includes endorphins (a natural painkiller), serotonin (a mood regulator), dopamine (a pleasure messenger), and oxytocin (the “love hormone”), he tells author Katja Pantzar in her 2018 book, The Finnish Way: Finding Courage, Wellness, and Happiness Through the Power of Sisu. Beyond that, Rintamäki points to health benefits ranging from an immune system boost to enhanced blood circulation.
After an icy plunge and maybe even a roll in the snow, winter swimmers commonly thaw out in a sauna. A cultural mainstay for thousands of years in Finland, they are found virtually everywhere today. It is estimated that the country has between 2 and 3 million saunas for its population of 5.5 million people. The practice may be associated with an array of physical health benefits, according to a 2018 review of sauna studies, and the feelings of well-being and relaxation could be linked to an increased production of endorphins.
That’s not to say you should immediately strip down, jump in the nearest pond, and then go sit in a hot room. Some experts dispute the notion that jumping into frigid waters is, in fact, a healthy pastime, and there are risks to factor in as well. Similarly, there is far more anecdotal than scientific evidence backing up any mental health advantages of sauna bathing. In Scandinavia, though, the benefits are simply viewed as common knowledge, Andersen points out.
Shift your mindset
For some, the arrival of winter brings on a more severe form of depression than the winter blues: Seasonal Affective Disorder. Because lack of sunlight is thought to be a significant contributor to SAD, Leibowitz was curious to learn why the people of Tromsø, her adoptive town, aren’t more depressed.
“They have relatively low rates of SAD given how far north they are,” she says, noting those rates are comparable to those of the state of Maryland, which is much farther south.
According to Leibowitz, mindset could play a central role. During her stay, she noticed that instead of grumbling about winter, Norwegians seemed to appreciate and even celebrate the season. In the end, her research found that a positive winter mindset was associated with overall well-being, including improved life satisfaction and personal growth.
“But we also found that the farther north you went in Norway, the more positive people’s wintertime mindsets were. Tromsø’s was more positive than Oslo’s, and Svalbard’s was even more positive than Tromsø’s,” she adds. “So even as you get more extreme within Norway, people are liking and appreciating the winter more.”
Leibowitz is not suggesting that those suffering from SAD just have a crummy mindset and should simply snap out of it. For some, light therapy, medication, or other forms of treatment may be necessary to alleviate symptoms. But for those who face a milder case of the winter blues, she believes an effort to alter attitude can be helpful.
Lean into the season
While learning to enjoy winter might sound easier said than done, keep in mind that people all across the globe love the season in ways both familiar and not. And there are simple steps to head in that direction.
Forget fashion as you bundle up. Rather than focusing on how you look in all that winter gear, Andersen suggests wearing something warm so you can be comfortable outside in the fresh air. There are plenty of active options to pick and choose from, like skiing, snowshoeing, fat biking, and ice skating. And some activities never get old, she says—reconnecting with your inner child by sledding down a hill or building a snowman are excellent ideas.
The crisp air can make you feel alert and alive, and slowing down will help you appreciate the winter wonder hidden in plain sight.
Your professional life offers another opportunity. If you can’t build a fika-like practice into your actual workday, try waking up earlier and savoring a cup of joe rather than racing out the door in a frenzy and guzzling caffeine on the go. Or make time to meet up with colleagues or friends after clocking out for the day.
When you get back home, embrace that feeling of being warm and cozy when it’s dark, cold, or snowy outside. A good way to do so is by dimming the lights to a soft glow and breaking out the candles to create a cozy ambiance.
“Try approaching winter knowing that it can be a more restful and creative time of year,” Leibowitz suggests. Warm your belly with a hot cider or tea, snuggle up with a blanket and a good book, revisit that hobby you’ve been neglecting, or even try a new one. When you’re ready for company, bring out the board games, lay out some snacks, and invite others to join in on the merriment.
And rather than seeing this as the stuff you have to do because you’re cooped up inside, view it as an opportunity to get to do these activities. In other words, Leibowitz adds, “lean into the season and make it special.”