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Step aside, hot girl summer. Cozy gal winter is here — and honestly, I could not be happier.
Weird, I know, but while many people dread the end of daylight saving time and the “fall back” to standard time, and do so year after year, I go to sleep knowing that I am entering my dark, gloomy, icy-cold prime.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the summer. I just don’t hate the winter, and actually find myself thriving while many of those around me are just trying to survive, through no fault of their own.
Decades of evidence suggest that shorter, darker days are associated with chemical changes in the brain that can cause people to feel lethargic, withdraw socially, and lose interest in enjoyable activities. It’s commonly referred to as the “winter blues,” but there’s also a more serious, diagnosable condition called seasonal affective disorder, or SAD, which is a type of major depression.
I will admit that the chilly season isn’t perfect. I can’t stand how long it takes to put on all my layers, how cold the car feels in the morning, and how runny my nose gets after being outside for just two minutes. I don’t even enjoy winter activities like skating or skiing. (Those ski resort vibes though are impeccable.)
But for some reason that I, and some experts who study seasonal well-being, cannot confidently explain, I’m able to look past all that. Instead, it’s the hoodies and sweatpants, dimmed lighting, pine-scented candles, refreshing bites of cold air, warm drinks, pumpkin spice–flavored foods, bonfires, fluffy scarves, and beauty of snow that provide me with the comforting warmth the actual weather does not.
I know not everyone shares this sentiment, and that winter can be a difficult time for many people, including those experiencing homelessness, financial issues, or illness: Car accidents occur more easily, injuries from slipping on black ice and shoveling snow are common, and heating bills can be hard or impossible to afford. I feel incredibly grateful to be in a position that allows me to experience the better side of an otherwise dangerous or stressful time of year.
That said, I know I’m not the only one who likes winter. So why is it that some people flourish in the frigid darkness while others would rather hibernate until it’s over?
Research on this is pretty much nonexistent. Some experts we spoke to said there may be biological reasons behind it, but one theory has dominated the rest: how we think about the weather impacts how we experience it.
“We have this idea that our biology is our destiny and that these things actually determine reality, but our subjective experience of things matters a lot more than people tend to realize,” said Kari Leibowitz, a health psychologist who studies how people living in northern regions fare during the winter. “Every season has things to like and dislike, but we tend to focus on all of the negatives about winter rather than thinking about the ways that we can lean into the season, adapt to it, work with it, and enjoy all that’s special about it.”
Mounting evidence suggests that the switch back to standard time (usually in November in most of the US) returns our bodies back to their most natural state, according to Joseph Takahashi, an expert on biological clocks and chair of the neuroscience department at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.
Standard time more closely matches human circadian rhythms — the 24-hour body clock that follows the sun and is made up of a complex interaction of genes, enzymes, and hormones. This biological clock controls your daily fluctuations in mood, appetite, immune function, digestion, blood pressure, body temperature, blood sugar, and more.
Studies show that jumping ahead an hour for DST in the spring is associated with several health risks, including sleep disruptions, which are often to blame for a temporary rise in traffic accidents, workplace mistakes, and injuries. There’s also an increase in heart attack and stroke risk, at least in the short term.
Scientists call this “circadian misalignment” because your body clock never fully adjusts to the change.
But a return to standard time could explain why some people feel better during the winter. Being in sync with the sun’s schedule may be “much more healthy, not only for metabolic markers, but also for mental health,” Takahashi said.
However, we do know that millions of people in the US experience seasonal affective disorder and have symptoms that begin in the fall or winter and resolve in the spring or summer.
Experts don’t know what causes SAD, but it may be connected to less daylight causing low serotonin (the hormone that regulates mood) and high melatonin (the hormone that regulates sleep) levels in the brain, which together help maintain the body’s daily rhythm.
Whether there’s something genetically distinct between winter lovers and haters remains to be seen, according to Dr. Norman Rosenthal, the psychiatrist who first described and coined the term “seasonal affective disorder” in 1984.
“Why it is that you don’t mind the winter and other people do, obviously it is something about your brain that’s different,” Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Georgetown University School of Medicine, told BuzzFeed News. “But those genetic differences, which almost certainly are going to emerge, have not been resolved or uncovered.”
You decide how you feel about the winter, but there’s no denying that culture and upbringing shape your perspective.
I grew up in Miami and didn’t experience a season beyond summer until I went to Boston for college. For me, winter still carries a special sense of novelty, fun, and excitement that I never had as a kid, so it’s likely that this seasonal high helps fuel the good winter vibes I feel and look forward to every year.
But there are plenty of Miamians I know who have and always will hate the winter that northerners experience because it’s not what they’re used to. Unsurprisingly, the overwhelming consensus among Floridians is that cold and snowy weather sucks. But it’s not just Florida, Leibowitz said, it’s the entire US.
“Once you start noticing how predominant the negative wintertime mindset is in American culture, you’ll see it everywhere,” she said.
Turn on any news channel, and you’ll be quick to find a meteorologist telling you to “brace yourself” and “hunker down” for an upcoming cold front; rarely will they remind you of all the ways to get cozy or enjoy the weather instead.
“If we believe that the dark is going to affect us and make us depressed, it might be more likely to make us depressed,” Leibowitz said. “A lot of this self-fulfilling prophecy creates realities.”
The negative winter mindset is ingrained in our language too — happy people have a “sunny disposition” and anything depressing is “dark.”
The opposite is true in Norway, Leibowitz said, where businesses provide blankets and bonfires for outdoor eating and residents have a strong tradition of outdoor activity regardless of weather, “the basic stuff that instills the message that, yes it’s possible to be outside in the winter and it’s enjoyable.”
That perspective changed Leibowitz’s own relationship with winter, she told me, which happened in part because she was immersed in a society that collectively enjoyed it. Researchers call this “mindset contagion.”
Winter can suck, but many of us have to deal with it anyway, so might as well find ways to make it suck a little less and embrace, rather than fight, the cold darkness.
In 2014, Leibowitz moved to Tromsø, Norway, an island of 70,000 people more than 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, to study how residents coped with the long winters, two months of which are spent in complete darkness because the sun never rises above the horizon.
Her study, published in 2020 in the International Journal of Wellbeing, found that the more positive mindset people had about winter, the happier and more satisfied they were with the season. Leibowitz also found that people who lived further north where temperatures are colder and days are darker had an even more positive wintertime mindset compared to those living farther south.
“They didn’t see winter as this terrible time of year that they had to survive,” Leibowitz said. “Instead they focused on all of the things that they enjoy about the winter and all of the opportunities provided by it.”
In Norway, this idea is called koselig, or “coziness,” Leibowitz said. It’s about making a deliberate effort to snuggle under blankets, have dinner by candlelight, read a book by the fire — whatever brings you joy and comfort.
Leibowitz’s advice is simple: “You might hate 99 things about the winter, but focus on that one thing” that sparks joy, no matter how small that spark may be. Maybe it’s enjoying your morning cup of coffee wrapped in a blanket in your backyard, plans to meet up with the neighborhood parents to make snow angels with the kids, or a yummy bowl of warm soup.
Just do what feels right and special. But remember, it may take time and some experimentation.
Getting outside and enjoying the light when you can is another great way to embrace the season.
“Norwegians have the saying ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing,’” Leibowitz said. “People often think that it’s going to be really miserable, but if you’re actually dressed appropriately, you’ll find that it’s not that bad.”
Try to avoid falling into the capitalism trap, though, Leibowitz warned. Stores love to monetize that cozy feeling we all crave, especially in the wintertime, with “cozy” blankets, “cozy” slippers, and candles that can help foster “coziness.” Advertisements make it seem like being cozy is an aesthetic (arguably, it is) and trend that you need and can’t miss out on.
“It’s true that our objects around us influence our psychology and how we feel. But if we really go deeper it’s more a sense of psychological safety and peace than it is about having the right stuff,” Leibowitz said. “Thinking about how you can cultivate that, especially during the darkest, coldest times of year, is a good place to put your attention and energy.”
While drinking hot chocolate and watching a favorite movie may help some people, for others it’s more complicated. It’s possible that a person who is already happy and satisfied with life is more likely to have a positive wintertime mindset than those who don’t. And some people, for a variety of reasons, including a SAD diagnosis, can’t embrace a positive winter mindset or get more active despite really wanting to.
Point is, it’s not your fault if you struggle during the winter. No one needs to “snap out of it and just change their mindset,” if their circumstances, whether that be a health condition or life situation, make it difficult to do so, Leibowitz said. But it is important to know how much of your mindset you can control and how much is influenced by other factors.
Still not looking forward to winter? Who’s to say wallowing in winter hatred isn’t cozy in its own right? To each their own. I, on the other hand, have already rolled out the red carpet, embracing the early chills with my warmest welcome yet. ●
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