FREEDOM AND SAFETY
Located over 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, Tromsø, Norway, is home to extreme light variation between seasons. During the Polar Night, which lasts from November to January, the sun doesn’t rise at all. Then the days get progressively longer until the Midnight Sun period, from May to July, when it never sets. After the midnight sun, the days get shorter and shorter again until the Polar Night, and the yearly cycle repeats.
So, perhaps understandably, many people had a hard time relating when I told them I was moving there.
“I could never live there,” was the most common response I heard. “That winter would make me so depressed,” many added, or “I just get so tired when it’s dark out.”
But the Polar Night was what drew me to Tromsø in the first place.
Despite the city’s extreme darkness, past research has shown that residents of Tromsø have lower rates of wintertime depression than would be expected given the long winters and high latitude. In fact, the prevalence of self-reported depression during the winter in Tromsø, with its latitude of 69°N, is the same as that of Montgomery County, Maryland, at 41°N. While there is some debate among psychologists about the best way to identify and diagnose wintertime depression, one thing seems clear: Residents of northern Norway seem able to avoid much of the wintertime suffering experienced elsewhere - including, paradoxically, in warmer, brighter, more southern locations.
I first learned of Tromsø two years ago, as a recent college graduate looking for more research experience before applying to graduate school for social psychology. In search of an opportunity that would allow me to explore my interests in positive psychology and mental health - and satisfy my sense of adventure - I stumbled upon the work of Joar Vittersø, a psychologist at the University of Tromsø who studies happiness, personal growth, and quality of life.
After reaching out to him via e-mail, I learned that the University of Tromsø is the northernmost university in the world. It seemed like the perfect place to test just how adventurous I really was, while also providing a unique population for a psychology research study: 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?
A few months after our initial correspondence, Vittersø agreed to serve as my advisor on a research project designed to answer these questions; a year later, after receiving a U.S.-Norway Fulbright to fund my study, I boarded a plane to Norway. When I arrived in Tromsø in August, the Midnight Sun period had just ended, the sky was only dark for an hour or two each night, and the Polar Night was still some three months away.
Tromsø is a tiny island, roughly the same size as Manhattan, and is home to approximately 70,000 inhabitants, making it the second-most populated city north of the Arctic Circle. With everything a person could “need” - a mall, three main shopping streets, and a few movie theaters - but nothing extra, Tromsø felt more like a small suburb than a city. Surrounded by mountains and fjords on all sides, it also felt isolated and wild.
For all that, I soon found Tromsø likable. For the city’s relatively small size, I was pleasantly surprised to find it home to an astounding number of festivals, cultural events, and city-wide celebrations. The main pedestrian street is thrumming every day of the week except Sunday, when most shops are closed, and is particularly lively on Saturdays and after 2 a.m. on weekends.
I settled into my student-housing apartment, with its amazing fjord views and three Norwegian roommates, and began building my Tromsø life. I took Norwegian lessons, which I used mostly to decipher food items in the grocery store, as almost everyone in Norway speaks English. I found a group of friends composed mostly of European international students, all of whom shared my desire to experience all that Tromsø had to offer (and to do it cheaply— Norway is prohibitively expensive). Instead of frequenting bars and restaurants as I had in the U.S., I enjoyed hikes, cabin trips, and yoga with my new friends. I joined several Norwegian meditation groups, which gave me friends outside the student community, and my Norwegian friends in these groups were kind enough to hold conversations in English for my benefit.
Tromsø in the summer (Kari Leibowitz)
I soon found my routine: work on my research and graduate-school applications during the week, and enjoy the outdoors and potluck dinners on the weekends. Over several months, Vittersø and I laid the groundwork for our study, expanding upon the background research I had conducted before coming to Tromsø, deciding what questions we wanted to ask, recruiting participants, and testing the online platform we would use to distribute our survey. I became more comfortable spending time alone, and frequented Tromsø coffee shops where I would spend the day working or reading, nursing a $6 latte to the point of loitering.
As I became more at ease in my foreign surroundings, I discovered an additional benefit of my research topic: Almost everyone I spoke with - in casual conversations, at parties, over psychology-department lunches at the university - had a theory as to why their city flourished during the Polar Night. Some people swore by cod-liver oil, or told me they used lamps that simulated the sun by progressively brightening at a specific time each morning. Others attributed their winter well-being to community and social involvement, Tromsø’s wealth of cultural festivals, or daily commutes made by ski. 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.
Even so, it wasn’t until October, several months into my project, that I realized I might be asking the wrong kinds of questions. The crystallizing moment was a conversation with my friend Fern, an Australian transplant who had been in Tromsø for more than five years, about how long I was planning to stay. Although my grant technically ended in May, I explained that I hoped to stay through as much of the summer as possible. (Tromsø has only two seasons: a long winter, and a brief summer that arrives almost overnight sometime between late May and late June, at the start of the Midnight Sun period.) “It would be a shame to make it through the winter only to leave right before the best season,” I said.
Without pausing, Fern replied, “I wouldn’t necessarily say summer is the best season.”
Fern’s comment helped me to view my research question with a newfound sense of clarity. It dawned on me that the baseline assumption of my original research proposal had been off: 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 thingskoselig, the Norwegian word for “cozy.” By November, open-flame candles would adorn every café, restaurant, home, and even workspace. Over the following months I learned firsthand that, far from a period of absolute darkness, the Polar Night in Tromsø is a time of beautiful colors and soft, indirect light. Even during the darkest times, there are still two or three hours of light a day as the sun skirts just below the horizon, never fully rising. During the longer “days” of the Polar Night, in November and January, the skies can be filled with up to six hours of sunrise and sunset-like colors.
Colors of the Polar Night (Kari Leibowitz)
It was now clear to me that my original research questions were colored by my own culturally biased perspective - in New Jersey, where I grew up, almost no one looked forward to winter, myself included (I even chose to attend college in Atlanta to escape the cold). In my experience, people simply got through the wintertime darkness on the way to a brighter, happier season. But in Tromsø, the Polar Night seemed to hold its own unique opportunities for mental and emotional flourishing.
I decided to include in my research a questionnaire that would capture the potential benefits of winter for the residents of Tromsø. But I quickly hit a snag: Aside from the standard assessment surveys used to identify Seasonal Affective Disorder, no other standardized psychological questionnaires about attitudes toward winter existed. (In general, psychology researchers prefer to use existing psychological measures, rather than create new ones, so that their work can be compared and contrasted to previous studies.) But while there were plenty of questionnaires that asked about seasonal depression, distress, and sleep disorder in winter, there were no surveys that made room for the potentially positive aspects of the season.
It was around this time, as I was investigating psychology graduate programs more thoroughly, that I flew back to the U.S. for a conference, a wedding, and a visit to Stanford University. While at Stanford, I met with Alia Crum, a professor of psychology, to learn more about opportunities for graduate students in her Mind & Body Lab. Crum’s research focuses on subjective mindsets, which she defines as “the lenses through which information is perceived, organized, and interpreted.” As we chatted about her research and my own work in Norway, Crum suggested that mindsets might play a role in the wintertime flourishing I was observing in Tromsø.
Crum follows in the footsteps of the psychologist Carol Dweck, whose work focuses on the psychological concept of “mindset.” In her research and her book,Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck details the ways a growth mindset (the belief that traits like intelligence and talent can be developed through sustained effort over time) leads to greater success than a fixed mindset (the belief that individual qualities are set for life). Those in a fixed mindset, she argues, often fail to see feedback as an opportunity for learning, and are more likely to view criticism as a personal attack. Conversely, those in a growth mindset tend to be more open to learning from their mistakes, taking risks, and pursuing self-improvement. Dweck’s belief, now widely accepted, is that mindset can be changed, and that a person can move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.
Crum’s work expands on this idea by investigating how mindset influences not only achievement and success, but also physical health. In one of her studies, for example, people who had a positive mindset towards stress, viewing it as productive rather than debilitating, had healthier levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In another, hotel employees who believed that cleaning rooms was good exercise saw decreases in their body fat and blood pressure, compared to those who simply viewed it as work. As her research illustrates, mindsets aren’t only “fixed” or “malleable:” They can be positive or negative, constructive or destructive.
Which led me 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?
Using Crum’s Stress Mindset Measure - a questionnaire developed to measure attitudes toward stress - as a model, Vittersø and I developed the Wintertime Mindset Scale. This 10-item scale asked respondents to rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements like, “There are many things to enjoy about the winter,” “In the winter, I often don’t feel like doing anything at all,” and “I find the winter months dark and depressing.”
The “blue period,” as seen from the author’s bedroom window (Kari Leibowitz)
A random sample of 238 Norwegian adults responded to our online survey. Of these respondents, the group was almost evenly divided between respondents living in southern Norway, northern Norway, and Svalbard, an Arctic island located halfway between northern Norway and the North Pole. Thanks to the warm current of the Gulf Stream, Tromsø is considered “sub-arctic” despite its northern location, but Svalbard is the real thing: With a population of only 2,000, Svalbard’s residents are required to carry guns with them if they leave the island’s main town, to protect themselves from hungry polar bears. Both in terms of light and temperature, Svalbard feels much more extreme than Tromsø; its average January temperatures range from -4 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to 20 – 28 degrees Fahrenheit in Tromsø. The Polar Night of Svalbard is significantly darker: absent even indirect sunlight, with no change in light to mark the passage of a 24-hour time span.
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.
We also found that wintertime mindset was significantly correlated with latitude in Norway - those living farther north tended to have a more positive wintertime mindset. With its extreme climate, Svalbard is almost certainly home to a self-selecting group; most residents only live on the island for a few years at a time. (Svalbard has several kindergartens but only a handful of high-school students, indicative of how often young researchers or oil workers come with their families and leave before their children are grown.) But even when the residents of Svalbard were excluded from the sample, those residing in northern Norway still had a significantly more positive wintertime mindset than those living in southern Norway. This isn’t a case of self-selection between snow birds in Florida and ski lovers in Maine; respondents living in southern Norway reside at roughly the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska, and still have cold, dark, and long winters - but not the total Polar Night (or Midnight Sun). Southern Norwegians still experience winter; they just don’t experience it as positively as their compatriots in the north.
It’s true that the winters in Tromsø can be uniquely magical. Tromsø is home to some of the world’s best displays of the Aurora Borealis, surrounded by mountain and nature trails perfect for an afternoon ski, and part of a culture that values work-life balance.
But I also believe the cultural mindset of Tromsø plays a role in wintertime wellness. I found myself the happy victim of mindset contagion after Fern told me she refused to call the Polar Night the mørketid, or “dark time,” preferring instead to use its alternative name, the “Blue Time” to emphasize all the color present during this period. (Plenty of people with a positive wintertime mindset might still refer to the Polar Night as the “dark time,” but Fern’s comment was indicative of one of the ways she purposefully orients herself towards a positive wintertime mindset.) After hearing this, I couldn’t help but pay more attention to the soft blue haze that settled over everything, and I consciously worked to think of this light as cozy rather than dark. And rather than greeting each other with complaints about the cold and snow, a common shared grumble in the U.S., my Norwegian friends would walk or ski to our meet-ups, arriving alert and refreshed from being outdoors, inspiring me to bundle up and spend some time outside on even the coldest days.
As far as we are aware, Vittersø 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. I hope to conduct some of this future research myself; when I leave Tromsø, I will head to Stanford University to pursue my Ph.D. in social psychology, with Crum as my advisor.
But I plan to keep my ties to Tromsø, too. Studies comparing wintertime mindset in colder U.S. states to our data in Norway could provide insight into cultural views of winter. Similarly, studies that induce a positive wintertime mindset by helping people pay attention to its benefits could answer questions about the role of mindset in wintertime well-being. As someone who moved from New Jersey to Georgia because I hated the cold, my personal experiment in wintertime mindset has left me convinced that, with the right mindset, it’s easy to love the Polar Night.
KARI LEIBOWITZ is a psychology researcher based in Norway.