For plenty of people (up to 10 percent, depending on where you live), the first signs of winter can trigger a certain sense of dread and a desire to hibernate under the covers until spring arrives. The season’s standard cool temperatures and relative lack of sunlight can have a major impact on body and mind, leaving us feeling languid and in low spirits. For some, it’s more than just a classic case of the winter blues — it’s a full-blown form of depression called Winter Seasonal Affective Disorder.

The mood disorder, aptly referred to as SAD, is characterized by its seasonality — it strikes around the same time each year, materializing in fall or early winter and retreating in the spring. The main culprit is believed to be a lack of sunlight. Light affects the activity of serotonin in the brain, the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood. As sunlight starts to diminish in the fall, the body begins to produce more of a protein called SERT (serotonin-reuptake transporter). Higher levels of SERT lead to reduced serotonin activity, ultimately causing depression. On the flip side, summer sun boosts serotonin activity by keeping SERT protein levels in the brain low.

With that in mind, it makes sense that December, January and February — the time of year when the days are shortest—would be the period when SAD is in full force. By the same logic, the rate of seasonal affect disorder in countries experiencing the shortest hours of daylight during this period should be through the roof. Except that many of these nations — Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland and Sweden—repeatedly land top spots on the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s World Happiness Index. We’re talking top 10 material.

So how do residents of Nordic nations remain resilient and keep seasonal depression at bay when light levels take a dip? Cultural cunning and good genes.

Mindset Matters in Beating SAD

Mindset, an established set of attitudes or beliefs that colors the way we see the world, could be an important component of Nordic residents’ defense against SAD.

The work of Dr. Alia Crum, an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, speaks volumes to the power of mindsets. Her research suggests that mindset significantly influences the benefits people get from certain behaviors. In a 2014 study demonstrated that a person’s stress mindset makes a difference and that perceiving stress as helpful rather than a hindrance, is associated with better health outcomes, emotional well-being and productivity.

“We know that physiological and social forces are at work in health and in healing, for better or for worse,” Crum said in an interview with ellevate. “But we need to develop more rigorous research to measure their physiological effects. It’s time we start taking these forces more seriously in both the science and practice of medicine.”

Research conducted by Kari Leibowitz, a PhD. candidate in Psychology at Stanford University, in the northern Norwegian community of Tromsø in 2015 demonstrated that the same logic can be used to explain why people living in regions with long, dark winters are able to maintain such a high level of well-being. From late November to late January, the sun never climbs above the horizon, yet rates of seasonal depression are surprisingly low.

Leibowitz found that the overwhelming attitude towards winter was one of celebration — something to be enjoyed rather than endured. As such, being active and spending time outdoors, both well-known mood boosters, is an ingrained part of Norwegian culture.

Norwegians’ arsenal of coping mechanism also includes the concept of koselig, whose regional equivalents include the Danish “hygge” and the Swedish “mys.” It’s an all-encompassing philosophy that combines coziness, companionship and nature, taking pleasure in the simple things in life, to promote personal well-being.

Tromsø isn’t an isolated case either. The effects of a positive wintertime mindset on seasonal well-being are felt well-beyond the borders of Norway. Samuli Pekkanen, a resident of Rovaniemi, Finland, says that after an active, light-filled summer (from early June to early July the sun stays above the horizon), the darker months of the year offer a much-needed period of rest and respite.

Of course, a positive outlook doesn’t mean that the physical toll of reduced sunlight is felt. But as a native of Finland, Pekkanen learned at an early age what to expect and how to manage the winter blues.

“Being aware of the change and shifting my mindset to get through this darker period is really important. I do feel less energetic than I would normally, but eating well, sleeping more and staying active definitely helps me stay in better spirits,” Pekkanen says.

“I train on a regular basis to help maintain peace of mind and over the last five years, I’ve taken an annual climbing trip in November somewhere south to recharge my batteries for December and January. I think if I wasn’t as active as I am, the change in season would have a much bigger impact. Being active is a major coping mechanism for me.”

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For Melissa Quintero, who recently made the drastic move from Colombia to Finland, managing expectations has been critical for fostering a sense of well-being.

“As a Colombian coming into this, it took my two months to prepare mentally because I knew it was going to be dark, which is something totally foreign to me because of where I grew up,” Quintero explained. “So, for me, I think it was really about managing expectations and knowing what to expect. I expected total darkness and got myself ready for that. When I realized that there was actually three hours of light, I was like, ‘Ok, great, so there is some light.’ So, it’s really about your mindset and the way you approach the situation.”

Geography vs. Genetics in SAD

Culture and mindset may not be the only thing helping people in some of the darkest-yet-happiest countries persevere and thrive during the polar night. There is some evidence that genetics could be at play.

Several epidemiological studies comparing rates of SAD between populations in different countries suggest that some populations may have developed a genetic resistance to the disorder. A 1993 study by Magnusson and Stefansson found that there was a marked difference in the prevalence of seasonal affective disorder among Icelanders living at latitudes of 64-67 degrees north (3.6%) and Americans living at considerably lower latitudes (7.6%).

Research by Axelsson et al. (2002) further suggests that genetic adaptation could be an explanation for certain populations predisposition to lower rates of SAD. The study compared the SAD rates of two population of Canadians living in Winnipeg, Manitoba, one of Icelandic descent and the other of non-native Icelandic descent. Canadians in the Icelandic group demonstrated SAD rates of 4.8% and 9.1% among the non-Icelandic group. The study also calls into question the relative importance of geographic latitude in the prevalence of SAD.

But it’s not necessarily a question of nature vs. nurture. The ability of Nordic populations to stay in high spirits despite extreme weather conditions is likely a combination of mindset, cultural practices, and genetics.

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Last Updated: Dec 23, 2019