In late December of 2018 I posted this to my Facebook page: “I need some stories or advice on how people here in Canada deal with no sun. Every day. No sun. Nothing but bleak, damp, cold, dark days. I’d pay a lot of money to boost myself up above the clouds right now to catch a glimpse of that sun. I know it’s up there. I’m one of those people who just can’t deal with this. Whenever the sun is out I’m skipping down the road delirious. But week after week of a sunless sky? How did our ancestors deal with this? Are people finding light boxes helpful? Vitamin D? Excessive amounts of wine or pot brownies? What? Any advice appreciated my friends!”
I received 85 comments, among them:
Yes, more wine!
Yes, definitely pot brownies, obviously
Go outside every day
Take at least 5000 I.U.’s of Vitamin D daily
Move out here to Calgary where there’s actually sun in the winter.
Light therapy boxes
Ski, snowshoe, walk in the woods
Go to a butterfly conservatory where it’s tropically warm and butterflies land on you.
I loved all those answers and just the fact that I’d reached out to people telling them how depressed I was about the weather really boosted my mood. I also got this more nuanced reply from my friend Michelle: “Agree with the suggestions but also just try to be okay with the lows as much as the highs. Accepting birth, death, rebirth is the way forward for me. We do this daily (sleep) and seasonally. For me, I feel that acceptance changes the feeling of it. I reach out to a friend or loved one when I feel low. It’s ok to say, I feel more needy today. I started saying this aloud lately and it seriously makes me laugh after years of repressing things.”
It’s human to want warmth and light. Our pagan ancestors had a calendar of fire festivals, and according to the Bible, God’s first words were, “Let there be light.” Night belongs to the dark side, literally and metaphorically: ghosts, thieves, the unknown. And now, scientists have actually identified the reason that one in five of us is negatively affected by lack of light (aka seasonal affective disorder).
Two recent studies suggest the culprit is a brain circuit that connects special light-sensing cells in the retina with brain areas that affect whether you are happy or sad.
When these cells detect shorter days, they appear to use this pathway to send signals to the brain that can make a person feel glum or even depressed.
“It’s very likely that things like seasonal affective disorder involve this pathway,” says Jerome Sanes, a professor of neuroscience at Brown University.
But knowing there’s a scientific reason for our SAD doesn’t make it easier to endure. A lot of people commenting on my FB post seemed to be telling me it was all about acceptance, embracing the bleakness of winter. Someone suggested embracing muted colours; lighting candles in the middle of the day; playing warm music; wearing cozy socks; investing in a hot tub.
These suggestions remind me of what the Danish call hygge and what the Norwegians call koselig. There are no direct English translations for these concepts but the closest is a feeling of coziness. Hygge is about hunkering down: It’s all candles, blazing fires, warm blankets and fuzzy slippers, reading nooks (called hyggekrog), comfortable pants (hyggebukser), wollen socks (hyggesokker), tea, coffee and hot chocolate.
But it’s not about isolation; quite the opposite. Danes plan hyggelig evenings of cooking together or playing board games. It’s possible to have hygge while curled up on a rainy day watching TV, but it’s heightened if you’re part of a casual gathering, preferably in a cozy cabin in the woods.
It’s the feeling of coming into a cabin after a walk in the snowy woods, sitting by a fire with friends or family and drinking something hot and eating cookies. Could this scene be any more hygge? Yes, if there were a storm outside. I like to think it’s that thrilling sheltered feeling you get when you’re snugly inside a camper van while rain pelts down on the roof. This sheltered feeling must be encoded in our DNA from when our early ancestors sat huddled in caves safely out of the elements.
This winter I’m going to try to do like the Scandinavians. I’ll be hygge-ing the hell out of it. I’ll also add a few other strategies to beat the winter blues, such as trying again to initiate what I call Cabin Fever Coffee, when a bunch of us who work from home meet at Molos for coffee. I also want to go to spas more, such as Chelsea’s Nordik, or the spa in Cantley (Amerispa Nordique Cantley) which is apparently less expensive and less commercialized. (My husband and I usually go to Nordik on my birthday which is in April. You’d think it would be spring in April, but no, it has snowed every day on my birthday for a decade now. Sitting in an outdoor hot jacuzzi on your frigidly cold April birthday while drinking red wine that you’ve snuck in via your stainless steel water bottle is the ideal way to laugh at the ongoing winter. Haha! Take that winter!)
Another strategy that I’ve already noticed is working for me is I’ve gone back to supply teaching in elementary schools. (I was a teacher in my former life before I became a writer.) Being around kids makes me happy. I’ve also become a Roots of Empathy instructor at Wakefield Elementary, which means I’m part of a program where babies are brought into a Grade 1 classroom to teach the kids empathy and I get to visit the same classroom of adorable kids once a week throughout the year. How can this not make someone happy? In fact, it makes me so happy that I will write about it. Finally, my friend Lissa and I are excited to be starting something we’re calling “The Firefly Sessions: True Stories That Light You Up” where adults share personal stories on stage in front of an audience. Details to come!
I guess what I’m saying is, to endure winter we need to actively engage in activities that get us not only outside, but outside of ourselves, to get off the couch and connect with our fellow humans.
Happy Winter Everyone!