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Latitude for Attitude

How to survive a winter lockdown? The short answer: think like a Norwegian. Studies show people living in the Arctic Circle have a mental attitude that helps combat the long ‘polar night’. It might be useful for us all…

The further north you live in the Arctic Circle, the better the inhabitants are mentally prepared. Amazingly, research shows that positive attitudes increase with latitude, i.e in regions where the winters are even harsher. People in Svalbard (at 78 degrees north) had a more positive mindset than the people in Tromsø (69 degrees north), who took a more optimistic view than people in Oslo (60 degrees north). In other words, the positive winter-time mindset is most common where it’s most needed.

So, what can we all learn from this? The vital component that allows our far northern neighbours to survive as little as two hours of daylight per day may be a particular “mindset” that equips them against the stresses of long polar nights.

Recently, OGN published a story about the Norwegian word: friluftsliv. It means a commitment to celebrating time outdoors, no matter the weather forecast. Somebody with this attitude sees the opportunities of the season. In Norway that focuses a lot on being outdoors, even when the weather is cold, or wet, or snowy. So, to keep yourself mentally and physically fitter this winter, open the door, step outside, and take a deep breath, and say: “I’m going friluftsliving.”

Brits have been stocking up on hot tubs, patio heaters and fire pits but, consumerism aside, what might we learn from the Norwegians’ psychological resilience?

To test whether a difference in outlook could also explain the resilience of Tromsø’s residents, health psychologist Kari Leibowitz designed the “wintertime mindset scale”, which asked participants to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with positive statements such as 'Winter brings many wonderful seasonal changes' and, in contrast, negative statements like

'Winter is boring'.

Sure enough, she found that participants’ answers predicted their wellbeing over the coming months; the more they saw the winter as an exciting opportunity to enjoy a glacial climate, the better they fared, with high levels of life satisfaction and overall mental health.

Amazingly, Leibowitz found that these attitudes actually increase with latitude, as indicated above, where people in the most northern latitude, such as Svalbard were substantially more positive than their southern compatriots in Oslo.

If you're feeling nervous about your ability to deal with the impending arrival of long, cold nights, it's worth noting that it's possible to change your appraisal of a situation consciously. In one memorable experiment, Alison Wood Brooks, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, asked participants to face their fears of public speaking. Brooks found that simply asking the participants to repeat the phrase “I am excited” helped to reduce their anxious feelings and led to a better overall performance, since it encouraged them to view the situation as a new challenge rather than a threat. Many psychotherapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy and acceptance and commitment therapy, have also been found to increase our resilience by helping us to reframe stressful events in more constructive ways.

So, as most of us live at a latitude somewhat lower than Norway, long winter nights should be a breeze. We just need to adopt the right mindset and the right clothing to go friluftsliving. And remember, if you complain to a Norwegian about the weather, you’ll likely hear a cheery response: “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing!” (In Norwegian, it rhymes.)

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