The mindset shift that makes happiness possible
With the days getting shorter (in the northeast U.S. at least), it’s easy to descend into gloom. Winter is clearly coming. That sense of foreboding led me to propose a piece to Fast Company last month on how to stay happy when it’s dark and cold. I planned to write standard advice on getting outside, listening to upbeat music, and exercising. Then I happened on research
done by Kari Leibowitz on the Norwegian approach to winter. She spent a year in Tromsø, which is so far north the sun doesn’t rise from late November to January. She went to study why the residents had a relatively low rate of seasonal blues, but found that their answer was “why would we?”
Rather than approaching winter as something to be endured, they chose to enjoy it. That made all the difference.
I was quite taken with the image of coziness (“koselig”) conjured up by lit candles in windows in these cold northern towns. I was pleasantly surprised to find other people were interested in this mindset shift too. The piece, “The Norwegian Secret to Enjoying a Long Winter”
has now been read about a million times.
As I’ve been pondering why, I’ve realized that it’s not just about winter. So much of life falls easily into the category of “endure” rather than “enjoy.” Meetings can tick endlessly by. The celebration of “hump day” each Wednesday implies that one is counting the days until the weekend. I see this as I analyze my life too. My 10-month-old is very much 10 months old, crawling everywhere, sticking the foulest possible objects in his mouth, and needing to be watched constantly. Consequently I have found myself counting the hours until bedtime, or even telling myself that in 18 months my life will be different. Then the baby will be able to walk, talk, and watch Dora the Explorer if I need 22 minutes to get something done!
It is true that all time passes. Sometimes, such as during an unpleasant bout of illness over Thanksgiving weekend that had me up much of a night, that’s comforting to acknowledge. I talked myself into running a half-marathon a few weeks ago by reminding myself that even if it was cold and painful, in a few hours it would all be over. Most likely I wouldn’t be any worse for wear.
But when possible,
flipping that mindset switch from enduring to enjoying is both simple and profound. The Norwegian saying that “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing,” can be understood on many levels. It is true that good clothing makes cold weather more tolerable. I wound up enjoying my half marathon partly because I wore a giant bulky sweater to the start (and discarded it in a donation pile) and put hand-warmers in my gloves. When I’m not freezing, I remember that I love to run, and Philadelphia on a fall morning can be gorgeous. It is also true on a metaphorical level: many things in life have good and bad parts, and preparing for unpleasantness can make it possible to enjoy the good. One thing that makes caring for the baby stressful is that there are few safe places to put him and let him explore. My mindset shift is realizing I can redesign a few spaces to make relaxation possible. When he’s safely ensconced in his room, I can sit in the rocking chair and marvel at his chubbiness. As I watch him figure out that he can stand, and shuffle forward, I can enjoy, rather than endure, babyhood this fourth time around.
Beyond the practical preparations, though, there is the reality that outlook is largely a choice. When we dwell on unhappiness, we get more of it, but no one wins in the Misery Olympics. Victory comes from refusing to take part (click to tweet).
Life is stressful and life is wonderful, and a conscious decision to see the wonderful means you savor the crackle of a fire rather than the gloom outside, the glint of moonlight on snow, even if that glint happens at 4:45 p.m. This mindset shift isn’t complicated. You simply decide to do it, and that makes all the difference.
All the best,