‘Hygge’ is a Danish and Norwegian word for a mood of coziness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment. With a recent study showing that people living in the arctic circle are armed with a mindset linked to this that helps combat the long ‘polar night’, a bit of ‘hygge’ might come in handy for us all… especially for parents of children with special or additional needs.
In a recent article in ‘The Guardian’, some research into this conducted by Kari Leibowitz, a health psychologist, was outlined. She visited the Norweigan city of Tromsø, which is located 200 miles north of the arctic circle. In the depths of winter, Tromsø gets no direct sunlight at all, and only the faint glow of indirect sunlight for a couple of hours or so a day. Yet, despite this, Tromsø’s citizens do not seem to struggle with low mood or seasonally affective disorder (SAD) in the way that might be expected. In fact, Leibowitz found that generally the mental health of the good folk of Tromsø was in excellent shape.
One study by May Trude Johnsen at the University of Tromsø found that the citizens’ wellbeing barely changed across the year. Their sleep was a bit more disturbed without the daily rhythm of the rising and setting sun, but they reported no increase in mental distress during the winter.
So why is this? What is the secret that they share? And how can this be relevant to special needs parents? Well, it seems that there is a ‘mindset’ that people living north of the arctic circle share, and the further north you go, the stronger this mindset becomes. What Leibowitz found was that the experience of arctic living people built on a lot of other relevant research which demonstrated that how people perceive and frame stressful events strongly influences how they are affected by them. People who think about adverse situations and events as a challenge, an opportunity to learn new things and to adapt to new ways of living are likely to cope much better than people who focus on the immediate difficulties as well as negative outcomes that ‘might’ happen in the future.
How we respond affects our mental health and well-being, as well as our physical health. In one experiment, Alison Ward Brooks, a Harvard professor, asked participants to face their fears of public speaking. It was found that by simply repeating “I am excited!” over and over before speaking reduced their anxiety and helped them to perform much better.
In her research of people north of the arctic circle, Kari Leibowitz tested whether a more positive outlook could help to explain and understand the resilience of Tromsø’s residents. She developed the ‘Wintertime Mindset Scale’ which asked residents how much they agreed or disagreed with statements including:
- There are many things to enjoy about the winter
- I love the cosiness of the winter months
- Winter brings many wonderful seasonal changes
- Winter is boring
- Winter is a limiting time of year
- There are many things to dislike about winter
Unsurprisingly, those that favoured the first three statements fared better in the adverse winter conditions than those who favoured the second three statements.
Many respondents commented that they struggled to understand why people would not enjoy winter, with all of the possibilities of winter walks and skiing, and practicing koselig (Norwegian hygge), snuggling under blankets with a warm drink in the candlelight.
What does this scandinavian positivity teach us as special needs parents? Well it’s so easy to be dominated by negative feelings, fears for the future, the mental and physical exhaustion we can often experience. But maybe if we can train ourselves to find the positives, to look for the opportunities to learn and adapt, we can find our own ‘koselig’ or ‘hygge’ too. We can find that there are ways to cope with our own ‘times of winter’, those dark periods where it all seems too much. And the more we try it, the better we’ll get at it!
Leibowitz emphasises that the aim of what she found isn’t to sugar-coat things or to deny the difficulties that we face; and we can’t hide from these challenges any more than the citizens of Tromsø can pretend that the sun is still rising. However, by recognising our own capacity to control our responses we may all find some hidden reserves of strength and resilience to help us face each day.
Header image © The New Yorker, main article and image © Mark Arnold
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