Kari Leibowitz, a psychology researcher who conducted studies in Norway, stumbled—a bit unexpectedly—on the power of cultural mindsets. She moved to Tromsø, Norway, to study “How the residents of northern Norway protect themselves from wintertime woes? And could these strategies be identified and applied elsewhere, to the same beneficial effects?”
Despite Tromsø being exceptionally cold and dark in the winter months, particularly compared to the milder winters in the U.S., the rates of depression among residents were similar to ours or lower. Based on the harshness and length of wintertime, there is an expectation that rates of depression, even if Seasonal Affective Disorder, would be higher. Leibowitz went to research why this wasn’t in fact the case. What she found was a high level of community involvement and a positive mindset toward Winter.
In Tromsø, the prevailing sentiment is that winter is something to be enjoyed, not something to be endured. According to my friends, 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.
After a visit with Alia Crum, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, Leibowitz altered her research to focus on mindset, creating a survey to address the question, “Can we measure positive or negative mindset toward winter?” Crum, who follows Carol Dweck’s work on mindset (Mindset: The New Psychology of Success), expands on the idea by investigating how mindset influences not only achievement and success, but also physical health.
The survey results indicated that wintertime mindset may indeed play a role in mental health and well-being in Norway. 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.
As far as we are aware, Vittersø (a psychologist at the University of Tromsø) and I are the first to examine wintertime mindset, and we are all too familiar with the scientific mantra that correlation does not equal causation. Thus, we can’t say with certainty that having a positive wintertime mindset causes people to have greater life satisfaction, or vice versa—only that these things are somehow associated. And 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. Yet our research data—and my personal experience—suggest that mindset may play a role in seasonal well-being, and the area appears ripe for future research.