How people living in cold countries survive the depths of long winters

Whenever I get sad about the upcoming long winter months in New York City, I watch “My cousin Oskaar,” the funny YouTube video of one Icelandic man explaining the difference between Icelandic and Australian winters to his cousin Dave, to put my winter in perspective.

“It’s a beautiful day, in sunny Reykjavik at twenty minutes past three o’ clock!” Oskaar tells Dave in the video where he stands in complete Icelandic darkness. “Can you see? No you can’t see because it’s too…dark.”

And yet despite these freezing temperatures and long stretches of darkness, Iceland, along with Norway and Denmark, consistently rank among the happiest countries in the world. As Americans prepare for our own winters, I thought it would be useful to look at how these happy countries deal with annual extreme winters. Here’s what I found.

Stop complaining

Enjoying months of short days and long nights begins with shifting your mindset. Instead of seeing winter as a prison sentence, see it as an opportunity. This positive mindset about winter was a reason for Norway’s low rates of seasonal depression, according to Fulbright American scholar Kari Leibowitz, who wanted to understand what kept Norwegians so happy. Leibowitz noted how Norway has ski season, festivals, and others community activities that make winter a cause for celebration.

“One of the things we do a lot of in the [United] States is we bond by complaining about the winter,” Leibowitz told Fast Company. “It’s hard to have a positive wintertime mindset when we make small talk by being negative about the winter.”

To enjoy the dark and cold months, stop wasting your time complaining about the weather. Make a point to mark activities down in your calendar that will brighten your January — regardless of weather forecasts.

Follow the Hygge lifestyle

Hygge, pronounced Hoo-guh, is a Danish winter philosophy defined as “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.” Being cozy can mean bringing out your fuzziest blankets or sipping your favorite hot beverage when you’re outside in the snow. According to “The Little Book of Hygge,” 85% of Danes associate Hygge with candles. Danes believe in the power of mood lighting. The European Candle Association reports that Danes burn more candles per person than anywhere else in Europe.

But Hygge goes beyond the material world of coziness—it’s an atmosphere and an experience that anyone has the power to build. As Copenhagen-based photographer Nana Hagel puts it, “Hygge can happen when there are soft blankets and candles involved, but it has more to do with your mindset, relaxing and feeling comfortable with the people you’re with, or alone.”

Hygge means that you prioritize making your harsh working environments as comfortable as you can with the materials and mindsets that you’re given. It implies that you are prioritizing your mental and bodily health. Hygge is thought to be so restorative that Danish doctors have been known to prescribe it as a cure for the common cold.

Bad weather can bring people closer together

Time spent outdoors is a natural mood lifter, not just because sunlight has been scientifically found to make us happier, but also because it may force us to bond closer together. At least, that’s the theory researchers studying Norway’s happiness are under. One of the editors behind the United Nations-backed World Happiness Report, John Helliwell, said that weather could be a contributing factor to Norway’s strong social bonds.

“There is a view which suggests that historically, communities that lived in harsher weather were brought together by greater mutual support,” Helliwell said. “You see this with farming communities as well, who will get together to pull a barn roof up. They don’t ask about who’s paying what. So the colder climate of the Northern [European] countries might actually make social support easier.”

So go outside or head indoors, and change your preconceived attitudes about winter. See it as a time to strengthen friendships and make connections by warm hearths or out on the slopes. Weather should not hold you back from becoming your best self. As a Norwegian saying puts it, “Det er ikke noe som heter dårlig vær, bare dårlig klær.” Or: “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.”