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A Winter Mindset

This week I attended the Winter Mindset workshop that I mentioned just before Christmas, put on by the Continuing Studies department at Stanford University and presented by Kari Leibowitz, a health psychologist and mindset expert. I found it slightly ironic that a session about winter was coming to us live from California, however unsurprisingly the participants predominantly seemed to be from more northern locations.

Before she talked about how to develop a winter mindset, which incidentally she had us working on during the workshop, she described her previous relationship with winter. As a child she lived on the Jersey Shore where life was all about summers on the beach, swimming, surfing, outdoor cafes and generally being out in the sunshine. In contrast, everything about the shore in winter was grey and drab and seen as something to survive in order to get back to the summer. Summer was indisputably seen as the best season. When it was time to go to college she moved further south to get away from the winter. So it was ironic that she finally ended up studying in Tromso at The Arctic University of Norway, the most northerly university in the world, and also home to the most northerly branch of Burger King! She went there to study with Joar Vitterso, a leading expert in human flourishing and wellbeing, in a world where psychologists often focus on the negative rather than the positive. Initially looking for answers to the question "Why aren't people in Tromso more depressed during the winter?" she quickly realised that the question should actually be "How do Tromso residents thrive during the winter?" The first hint of this was when she told a friend that although she was initially booked to return to the USA in May, she wanted to stay longer as it would be silly to have survived the extended polar night period only to leave without enjoying summer, the best season, and her friend was baffled! Thus she started to discover that the mindset with which you enter winter is more important to your wellbeing during winter than whereabouts you live, and that really is the essence of the way to enjoy winter.

So let's cut to the chase; even though the days are lengthening, what can we do to thrive during the next couple of months, not to mention prepare for next winter? Here are three ways to help develop a positive winter mindset:

  1. Get outside (I didn't even pay her to make this number one!) - get away from any beliefs that being outside in winter is grim and develop positive ones. It was noted that proper clothing and footwear is really essential to this. Accept winter as it is - you can't change winter but you can change your attitude to winter.

  2. Make winter special: you may have heard of the Danish word hygge, but the Norwegians claim to have got there first with koselig - which means exactly what you'd expect. Think about things that are uniquely pleasurable in winter, such as getting outside to look for the full moon, or taking a flask of soup and sitting somewhere beautiful to have lunch.

  3. Embrace any cultural festivals that celebrate winter - or make up your own winter celebrations. This year, having listened to the January edition of the As the Season Turns podcast, I decided to hold a personal wassail ceremony, making hot apple and ginger and toasting the fruit trees in our garden. I also have a ritual about taking photos of the first snowdrop I see!

To be clear, none of this is about denying the potentially negative aspects of winter; it is not meant to replace the need for proper infrastructure to manage the winter, (Yes! Our pavements need gritted!) and it's certainly not about ignoring the realities of living through almost 3 winters in a global pandemic. It's about appreciating winter in our thoughts; the phrase I wrote down in capital letters was:


To finish up the webinar, Kari gave us an exercise to counteract winter bashing small talk; an opportunity to prepare your reply for the next time someone says something like "ugh I'm so sick of winter". The chat box lit up with an amazing variety of responses. My current response is "there is so much to notice just now, from bulb shoots to buds swelling". She then charged us to go out and become winter mindset ambassadors - so here I am, encouraging you to embrace winter!

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