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Banishing the winter blues

I am writing this on a rainy and cold afternoon in London, as the autumn leaves – made up of shades of orange and maroon – fall from the nearby trees creating an autumnal tapestry on the floor below; a sign of what is to come, as winter closes in. I know many people are […]

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I am writing this on a rainy and cold afternoon in London, as the autumn leaves – made up of shades of orange and maroon – fall from the nearby trees creating an autumnal tapestry on the floor below; a sign of what is to come, as winter closes in. I know many people are dreading the darker winter months, which is why it’s so great to see research which highlights the things we can do to experience joy and awe, and to help fend off the winter blues, even in the most unlikely of circumstances. Experiences which are shown to boost our wellbeing… even in the midst of a pandemic.

You will no doubt be familiar with the fact that a significant number of people experience Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) each year. According to research published in 2014, it is estimated that almost one in three people in the UK is negatively affected by SAD, with approximately 8% experiencing acute symptomatology. According to the NHS, symptoms can include:

  • a persistent low mood
  • a loss of pleasure or interest in normal everyday activities
  • irritability
  • feelings of despair, guilt and worthlessness
  • feeling lethargic (lacking in energy) and sleepy during the day
  • sleeping for longer than normal and finding it hard to get up in the morning

The same research found that more than half of adults find that their overall mood is worse in the darker winter months, with two fifths reporting increased levels of fatigue. When we talk about SAD, many of us might be prompted to think of light therapy as a cure-all for SAD, but according to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) there is, as yet, insufficient evidence to conclude whether light therapy is effective in treating SAD. There is no doubt that light exposure is important for our circadian rhythm, which impacts biological processes, and there is evidence that tentatively suggests it could help. However, if you’re familiar with depression more broadly, you will know that our mindset plays a significant role in regulating our mood, which is where the latest study comes in.

The study was interested in how a population, which is plunged into total darkness for vast swathes of the winter, manages to stay positive and upbeat. If you are familiar with the World Happiness Report, you will know that Norwegians are some of the happiest people on the planet. The 2020 report ranked Norway as the fifth happiest nation in the world, ahead of the UK which trailed in 13th place. Yet, with a country that sees little daylight during the winter months, including towns, such as Tromsø, remaining in total darkness from the end of November until mid January each year, you might be asking yourself what Norwegians have got to be so happy about.

It turns out that they may not have anything specific in their surroundings that makes them happier. Instead they are able to pick out more things in their existing surroundings to be happy for. It follows decades of research which has identified that our circumstances are not the primary determinant of our present moment happiness – not by a long shot. In fact, the biggest determinant of our happiness (by a factor of 9:1) is the way in which our brain processes our surroundings – our mindset. A mindset is a set of beliefs, assumptions and patterns of thought which affect what someone thinks and how they feel about themselves, other people and the world at large.

The present study adds yet more evidence that we can increase our present moment happiness if we can harness a more optimistic mindset. Researchers in the study found that the further north Norwegians live, the more likely they are to perceive winter in a favourable light. Essentially, the less daylight they experience during the winter months, the more likely they are to see the joy in winter – they’re far more likely to focus on the cosy winter nights and the joy of experiencing seasonal changes. Whereas those more at risk of mental ill-health are those that see winter through a bleaker lens, focusing instead on the idea that winter is boring, that it is a limiting time of year and that there are many things to dislike about the cold a dreary winter months.

It’s not that their circumstances have changed, it’s that they make assumptions about their circumstances which are more likely to promote happiness and a sense of wellbeing. This mindset shift isn’t confined to how we think about winter, but with more than half the UK population seeing a drop in their mood in the winter months, perhaps adopting a positive winter mindset is a good place to start. The easiest way to help your brain to shift its mindset, is by challenging yourself to seek out those things which elicit joy from your surroundings. You consciously perceive only a tiny fraction of your immediate environment at any given moment in time and your experience is largely determined by what you focus your attention on, so there should be plenty of scope to train your brain to see more positives. Try to think of things that you can be grateful for and challenge yourself to find something new each day to add to your list.

With that in mind, what things do you cherish (or learn to cherish) and look forward to about winter? For me, it’s the warm cosy nights, the wintery walks wrapped up in woolly hats and warm wintery clothes; it’s the change of season with trees shedding their leaves, squirrels foraging for nuts and tasty, chunky soups that warm you from the inside-out. It’s also typically the time of year that we spend some precious time with family and friends. While covid may well impact my ability to socialise in person as much as I might like over the coming months, I still plan to keep in touch with friends and family as much as I can via video chat, text messages and other means of communication.

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