I’m a health psychologist who spent a year living above the Arctic Circle in Tromso, Norway, a city that is so far north that, from December to February, the sun doesn’t rise at all. In Tromso, I lived in a community that doesn’t push the darkness away or try to live as though it doesn’t exist. Instead, the people of Tromso adapt to the changes in daylight and find ways to celebrate this special time of year. Since returning to the United States, I’ve realized that the practices I observed in this land of extreme winter can be adopted wherever you live, from Seattle to Florida, to make the dark season cozy, pleasurable and engaging.
Accept the darkness
Like with many difficult things, the first step is acceptance: Accept winter for what it is — colder and darker.
Many of us try to pretend nothing has changed when daylight ends earlier. We stick to the same schedules and feel annoyed when we’re more tired, despite how daylight influences our circadian rhythms and sleep patterns. By recognizing and accepting the darkness, we can make room for it. We might feel sleepier in the winter, and that’s okay. Rather than viewing this as problematic, we can see the darker season as an opportunity to lean in to rest, go to bed earlier and, when possible, sleep longer.
As Katherine May writes in her memoir, “Wintering”: “Plants and animals don’t fight the winter; they don’t pretend it’s not happening and attempt to carry on the same lives that they lived in the summer. They prepare. They adapt … Once we stop wishing it were summer, winter can be a glorious season in which the world takes on a sparse beauty and even the pavements sparkle. It’s a time for reflection and recuperation, for slow replenishment, for putting your house in order.”
Embrace indoor pleasures
In addition to resting more, we can also embrace the season as an opportunity for quiet, contemplative pursuits. For slower walks, bundled up in the cold. For baking bread and cookies with our children. For “putting the house in order.” For practicing art and music, writing poetry, reading the books that have been piling up on coffee tables and nightstands.
In my research, I’ve asked hundreds of people what cozy wintertime activities they enjoy and found that, when asked to thoughtfully reflect, almost everyone is able to come up with a long list of things they enjoy doing especially in winter darkness: from knitting and crafting to snuggling in front of the fire with a book to playing games and practicing yoga.
Ida Solhaug, a psychology researcher at the University of Tromso, explains how the dark season is a time for these quiet pursuits: “We are allowed to sit with blankets, drink a cup of tea, hear the wind, look into the fire, and gather.” The winter season grants us permission to slow down, rest and take stock. Rather than view winter as a time when we are limited by the lack of daylight, we can appreciate and celebrate this season for giving us the chance to reconnect with pleasures and pastimes of a different pace.
For indoor activities, coziness is key. “Hygge” in Danish, “koselig” in Norwegian, coziness is a hallmark of winter culture in the Nordic countries. Solhaug also talks about how light is used to deliberately create that cozy feeling: “We gather around the light when it is dark and cold. Indoors, we gather around the fireplace or light candles, which makes us associate the dark period as something extra koselig.”
Embracing and ritualizing cozy indoor pleasures is part of enjoying winter throughout the Nordics. In Iceland, November represents the start of the Jolabokaflod, or the “Christmas book flood,” in which new books are released leading up to Christmas, as the most popular Christmas present is a book. On Christmas Eve, many Icelanders crack open their books straight away and spend the evening reading and enjoying hot chocolate — a quintessentially cozy activity baked into one of their biggest holidays of the year.
Try softer light
To bring coziness into your home this season, try banning overhead lighting at home and rely solely on lamps. To take it to the next level, use only candlelight. When possible, add a crackling fireplace and a warm beverage.
Even the act of setting up this lighting is an invitation to pause. As a mindfulness expert, Solhaug explains, “The ritual of lighting candles may become valuable mindful moments, an opportunity to pause for a while.”
It seems the key to enjoying the darkness isn’t to banish it by turning on as many lights as possible: It’s to turn the lights down low and invite the darkness in. This was a practice I observed everywhere in Tromso — restaurants and cafes had low lighting and plenty of candles, and even lunch breaks and meetings in the psychology department at the university could be conducted by candle light.
See how cooking, reading, doing yoga, showering or even binge-watching Netflix feels different in low, moody lighting. Notice how leaning into winter makes it feel completely different from fighting against.
Enjoy the light when you can
We’re still allowed to love the light. Even in the Arctic of Tromso, bakers work round-the-clock before the sun returns preparing solboller, “sun buns,” a traditional doughnut eaten to celebrate the end of the “Polar Night.” It is the two-month period in winter during which the sun doesn’t rise at all, and Tromso receives only a few hours of indirect light each day as the sun skirts below the horizon.
Early risers — or morning commuters — can revel in the extra light in the morning. We can bundle up and sip morning coffee or eat lunch outside or take a walk in the early afternoon to enjoy the daylight while we can. In Tromso, it was common to take a break outdoors at midday, to enjoy the small amount of diffuse, indirect light present as the sun skirted just below the horizon.
As the days get shorter, those of us who feel extra groggy in the morning might benefit from the purchase of a sun lamp to simulate morning light. At the university, the student counseling organization hosts a “light cafe,” where students can sip coffee and sit in front of a sun lamp to help regulate students’ biological clocks during the polar night. Even back in the United States now, I use one when I sit down at my computer to start my day.
Pursue social activities
Good company can make almost anything bearable, so an option proved to boost mental health and well-being is to seek out social support, community and human interaction. One study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, found that people standing at the base of a hill looking up estimated the hill to be less steep when they were accompanied by a friend than when they were alone.
This, and other research on the value of social support, suggests that having someone we care about by our side can make intimidating challenges appear easier and more manageable. If social support can make molehills out of mountains, then joining in good company can make the cold, dark nights of winter a little friendlier. And these don’t need to be large gatherings to be effective.
Meik Wiking, author of “The Little Book of Hygge,” writes that “Almost 60% of Danes say the best number of people for hygge is three to four.” Gathering with loved ones in celebration of winter darkness might mean hosting a dinner party: bonus points for something warm eaten by candlelight (“shabu shabu,” or Japanese hot pot, hosted by a friend is a highlight of the season for me). Or it might mean planning a recurring happy hour with (vaccinated) friends, starting a book club (even over Zoom) or slipping on a parka and gathering around an outdoor bonfire (marshmallow roasting required).
Social activities give us something to look forward to as the nights get longer: They get us out of our homes and out of our funks.
Shift your mind-set
My research in Tromso, published with Joar Vitterso in the International Journal of Wellbeing, found that having a positive wintertime mind-set — viewing winter as a delightful time of year, with many opportunities for enjoyment — was associated with well-being during the winter in Norway. And a growing body of research in psychology suggests that it’s possible to intentionally change our mind-set, and that doing so can improve our health, performance and well-being.
With a small change in mind-set and approach, we can stop viewing the darkness as closing in on us and start to see the opportunities longer nights afford. This season can be synonymous with contentment and pleasure, if we only open our eyes to what’s possible.
Maybe this year we’ll find ourselves greeting the solstice warmly, like the old friend she is.
Photos by Carolyn Van Houten, editing by Anjuman Ali, Ronald Jones and Thomas Heleba, photo editing by Wendy Galietta, design by Alla Dreyvitser.