Words by: Luke Johnston
Despite the honor it is to call the great state of Michigan your home, you admit anticipating winter with a degree of dread. Not you? Never? Touché. But the sun just slipped over the horizon at four in-the-afternoon, the weather report reads “feels like -20” and you still have to excavate two-feet of snow around your vehicle before a white-knuckle commute. After several weeks of full-on winter chaos, you begin to wish you were a bear. At least if you were a bear you could crawl into a cozy hole after dinner one night and wake next Spring.
Welcome to the winter blues.
The cold-climate crisis of creature’s incapable of hibernation. Where life north of the 42nd parallel is met with very little light and legions of ice. Where it’s actually quite normal to experience weather related mental health issues ranging from mild emotional discontent to a diagnosable depressive disorder (aka S.A.D.). Maybe that’s you, or maybe that’s someone you know. Regardless, negative seasonal sentiments are so common in certain regions of the world, it's worth knowing that entire cultures have evolved in response. In fact, if you know where to look, you may just find some helpful ways to function with the funk.
Consider the irony that Nordic countries are awarded to be, as if on continuous rotation, the happiest of places to live in the world. In spite of geography notorious for its dismal winter by comparison to almost everywhere winter falls, the consensus of multiple international surveys does not lie. Scandinavians makes the most of winter. And it begs the question: What’s the secret? Well, the answer depends on who you ask. The Danish call it Hygge, while the Swedish point to the art of Lagom. In Finland, it’s the practice of Sisu that occasions a sense midwinter wellness.
“It is the answer to cold weather, rainy days, and the duvet of darkness”
In fact, Finland has taken the lead in recent years according to the United Nations World Happiness Report, although no country has been named more than Denmark as our world’s leader in happiness. No doubt the Vikings crush the charts! But according to Meik Wiking’s best-selling title, The Little Book of Hygge, the real substance of the countries achievement is not tenacity but its culture of Hygge (HOO-ga).
“It is the answer to cold weather, rainy days, and the duvet of darkness”says Wiking shortly after describing a gathering of close friends at a rustic cabin in late December. The perfect Hygge ambiance including the warmth, crackle, and soft light of a fireplace, the comfiest of clothes, a warm drink in hand, as the smell of simmering stew - likely prepared by everyone there. Que intimacy, as it swells organically on such occasions. For the Danes, a sense of casual, cozy, togetherness is so important, they go out of their way to curate it.
Achieving Hygge is more than lighting your candles when the sun goes down, indulging in your favorite comfort food, adding the extra layers, and loving the place you call home; although those things are very important. Hygge is the conscious choice to skip the party across town with a bunch of strangers in exchange for movie night, in your pajamas, with close friends and your favorite candy. And make it a scary movie as Wiking considers, “hygge is even more hygge if a controlled element danger is involved.” If that’s a Danish truism, it suggests the next blizzard could be the substance of your joy.
However, your particular winter crisis may need a more reflective approach than the Danes offer. Leanea Dunne’s book, Lagom: The Sweedish Art of Balanced Living, offers precisely that. In Sweden finding your inward and outward equilibrium is key to sustainable happiness. It is also the countermeasure to every curveball (or snowball) life throws at you.
For a Lagom approach to emotional wellbeing, Dunne recommends embracing your feelings while “not giving undue importance to any one emotion.” Much like what you would learn in cognitive behavior therapy, Lagom reminds you that emotions – adjacent to thoughts - are a malleable substance; they can be measured, contained, and corrected with a little practice.
Yielding just shy of your tipping point is the act of balance and it is a bullseyefor Lagom. It’s why Dunne describes the benefits of leaving work on time, decluttering your home, and adopting proper breathing techniques when overwhelmed. Even the Swedes suggest a little woosah to help weather the storm!
Pending the severity of winter weather Finland encounters, it often takes serious heart to make it till spring. Joanna Nylund explains the wherewithal of Finn’s in Sisu: The Finnish Art of Courage. Here you will find the secret to survival is a willful suspension of disbelief (also a decent Modest Mouse song) when facing a challenge beyond your capacity. It is when you resign everything inside yourself to finish the race, no matter how hard it gets, to prove it to no one beside yourself, that you could.
Sisu is digging your heels in, gritting your teeth, and taking what comes. It never demands more than what’s required to simply survive. So, managing the winter blues doesn’t have to be a hero’s journey. It also makes sense of the Finnish custom of Kalsarikänni, aka, Päntsdrunk, which indicates a good portion of Finland can be found at home, unashamedly in their underpants, and drinking a few beers after a long day. Though it certainly won’t solve a crisis of meaning, indulging responsibly has not stopped Finland from being the named the happiest country in the world – twice!
Even Michigan is nationally recognized - almost annually – as a place only hardy people can call home.
Surely every region that’s pummeled by winter has developed strategies to cope with its hardships. Even Michigan is nationally recognized - almost annually – as a place only hardy people can call home. In spite of Grand Rapids toping the charts in a national study of cities with the most depressive winters, it is acclaimed to be one of the best places to live in the nation, and its growing like crazy! Whatever this strange latitudinal paradox is, it pretty cool that Michigan shares it.
So, what untranslatable word does Michigan advertise? None. The nice thing about living in a multicultural region of the world without a singular cultural force, is the freedom to harmonize with many. What unites Michiganders is something much deeper than any culture could offer anyways! It is gratitude for such a beautiful place to live, even if you find it hard to muster its praises every month of the year. Remember, seasons change. Nothing about nature is permanent, including the winter blues.