NANCY EDMONDS HANSON: After Thought — Look on the Sunny Side of Winter

Now we remember why they’re called French, not Polar, poodles.

Since vintage winter arrived last week, our little yapdoodle has once again raised serious questions about why we live in Minnesota. When it’s time to let her out, she approaches the door like a condemned innocent being marched to the gallows. We watch her try her best to do her business with no more than one paw on the ground, loose snow up to her tummy. She may have a point.

Molly never moves livelier than on her return trips, prancing so high and so quickly that those frozen paws barely touch the earth. If the temps are warm enough for snowballs, she’ll burst back into the house with snowblobs crusted in her curls, flinging canine curses as she makes a bee line for her favorite blanket on the couch.

This winter, though, the dog is the only one at our address who’s permitted to complain. Russ and I are pursuing a serious scientific inquiry into the Scandinavian way of winter, namely this: If you appreciate these January days instead of whining, can you make the season sing?

Actual serious research suggests you can. Why are the nations of Scandinavia routinely spotted at the top of lists of the happiest people on Earth? Setting aside sundry social factors like universal health care, North Sea oilfields and, of course, an endless supply of lefse, the people of Norway, Sweden and Denmark do seem to have figured out not only how to survive the short days and long, cold nights of January and February, but to thrive.

Last year, a doctoral student at Stanford University, Kari Leibowitz, invested her Fulbright scholarship in pursuit of the answer. Spending the whole winter in Tromsø, the northernmost Norwegian city just half the size of Moorhead-Fargo, she started out asking the natives the obvious question that occurs to summer-worshipping Americans: “So why is seasonal depression so rare there?”

It seemed logical enough at first. Tromsø is 217 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Right now, the sun never really tops the horizon. The average winter temperature is no better — no warmer, that is — than our own … and sounds even worse translated into Celsius.

When the grad student asked the natives, “Why aren’t you people more depressed,” they just looked at her and replied, “Why would we be?”

Turns out, Leibowitz concluded, “people in northern Norway view winter as something to be enjoyed, not something to be endured.” That makes all the difference.

Norwegians, she discovered, simply think differently about cold weather. Rather than bonding over their misery, they tend to celebrate what makes the season special, outside and in. Nordic skiing and vigorous hikes alongside snowy frozen fjords are fine enough … but so is their flip side, the happy life within four walls.

Norwegians and their Scandinavian cousins actually look forward to this time of year, she realized. It’s prime time for savoring the spirit they call “køselig” — loosely translated, “coziness.” Evenings by the snapping fire, comfortable fellowship with family and friends, flickering candles and good books and mugs of hot chocolate — really, the image of so much comfort we usually take for granted can dial back memories of sweaty summer days into a weak second-best.

Perhaps the sturdy Nordic blood has thinned a bit hereabouts after a century in the promised land. Maybe we of stoic Nordic stock are simply so hard up for small talk that whining about the cold has become our go-to icebreaker. Either way, too many of us waste these perfectly good months feeling sorry for ourselves, frozen in our winter misery while hallucinating sizzling, sandy beaches and lukewarm waters.

So we’re trying to fix that at our house, starting out right now. Russ and I have set up reasonable ground rules: We are permitted to make neutral factual reports about the temperature — “the thermometer on the deck says it is 20 below” — but must avoid value judgments — “Dagnabbit, it’s 20 rotten stinking degrees below stupid blankety-blank zero. Why do humans still live here?”

When grocery clerks or dental hygienists reel off remarks like “Cold enough for you?” … we are required (for the sake of science) to respond with a positive. Yes, but the sky is so clear and blue. Yes, but the crisp air is truly invigorating. Yes, and just think — spring is just 66 days away.

The jury is still out on our experiment. Two things, though, are already becoming clear. People get really annoyed when you Pollyanna up an epic rant and throw them off their rhythm. And, so far at least, our persistently positive attitude has failed to have any impact at all on our non-Norwegian poodle.

Yet early results of this experiment in attitude adjustment do seem to be encouraging. As the practical Scandinavians have been known to remark, there’s really no such thing as bad weather — just bad clothes. If every cloud has a silver lining, just remember this sensible Nordic advice. Make sure that yours is goosedown.

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