Develop A “Positive Wintertime Mindset” This Year

Call it Norwegian “friluftsliv,” or call it stoicism—just get outside.

Bummer, I thought, watching the blackening clouds race by my office window just in time for the happy hour hike I’d planned with friends. But, since it’s 2020 and outdoors is about the only place I feel safe socializing, I resisted the urge to look at my weather app. What could it tell me, after all? Sleet? Snow? Wind? Rain? Barring a freak lightning storm, I figured it was better to just dress in layers and go. 


As I pulled up at the trailhead, I learned my friends had all thought the same thing. The gloom made all of us hesitate—but nobody texted a word about bailing. The isolation of the pandemic made us all more forgiving of less-than-ideal conditions. In fact I wound up feeling grateful to see a roiling, moody sky that I may have missed if we’d canceled, fearing a storm, or in different times met on barstools or over dinner tables, shouting over music instead of hollering our conversations into the snow-speckled wind.


It’s not even quite December yet, but looking toward a dark, cold winter of social distancing, I see one possible silver lining: It’s getting me out more. 


A spate of recent articles have declared 2020 the year of friluftsliv (pronounced “free-loofts-leev”), a Norwegian concept roughly translated as “open-air living.” That certainly rings true. For many of us, the outdoors has always been where we’ve met up with friends and spent our quality time, and this year we’re leaning on our time outside even more. But what happens now that the days are growing shorter and colder?

If we take a play from the Norwegians’ book, time outside is actually an antidote, instead of a problem, during intense winters. Teaching children how to dress for and be comfortable in the outdoors is something they teach in school—partly with an eye toward mental health. Depression is a nationally recognized problem in the nordic nation, and time outside is a chief tool for promoting mental wellness.


I think about this as I make plans for my next hike with a friend, checking the temperature and debating what jacket to choose considering the weather and altitude. I didn’t grow up thinking it was OK to play outside in all weather. If it was rainy, we stayed in. If it was bitter cold, we went out as little as possible. Windy? Wait till later. But over time, and with the privilege of owning quality weather-resistant clothing, I’ve come to change that mindset. All types of weather can be beautiful, and if you sit around waiting for “perfect” conditions, you’ll miss countless amazing days. 


This year has been a huge year for challenges like FKTs—fastest known times—with elite athletes pitting themselves against individual challenges like the Wonderland Trail on Rainier or the Nolan’s 14 in Colorado. And a challenge can be great motivation for getting out to train or enjoy the outdoors. But a competitive or conquering mindset actually goes beyond the concept of friluftsliv, according to Oliver Luke Delorie, author of a new book about the concept titled—wait for it—Friluftsliv: Connect With Nature The Norwegian Way. Instead, it’s about “how spending time in nature and feeling its rhythms, even when it’s something as simple as a magical Sunday walk in a local park, can improve our well-being and encourage productive self-reflection.”


Along similar lines, members of Zeno’s Swim Club—a group dedicated to swimming outdoors every month of the year—say “swimming outdoors is never just about the swimming.” Especially in winter. Members of the virtual winter swim club find encouragement in the words of the Stoic philosopher Zeno, promoting his belief that “the path to happiness is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself.” 



In a year where much of our lives feels particularly out of control, leaning into this—either in theory or in a literal cold-water dip—is something to consider. Bonnie Tsui, author of Why We Swim, summed up this ideal in an interview with Daily Stoic:


“I like the elemental way that Seneca sets up the understanding that we are in control of some things and not others: ‘Floods will rob us of one thing, fire of another. These are conditions of our existence which we cannot change. What we can do is adopt a noble spirit, such a spirit as befits a good person, so that we may bear up bravely under all that fortune sends us and bring our wills into tune with nature’s.’ “  


The common theme here, it seems, is attitude—a change of mind. Stanford University health psychologist Kari Leibowitz, in a National Geographic interview, explained that what sets Norwegians apart in their practice of friluftsliv is a “positive wintertime mindset.” Leibowitz says that what you believe about something, like winter or gnarly weather, can transform your experience of it. 


Embracing the cold, darkness, rain or snow is the key. Learning to simply enjoy nature the way it is, instead of classifying good or bad weather. Of course, much of this comes down to having the right gear, which is a fantastic privilege. Climber, author and wild swimmer Robert Macfarlane has been quoted saying “Discomfort has become its own luxury,” and there’s certainly truth to that.


As I look toward the darkest, coldest days of the year to come, Macfarlane’s words are becoming something of a motivation, personally. We’ve lost much this year—but we still have much to be thankful for. And maybe it all comes down to a walk, in the sleet, with friends, with gratitude for the luxury of choosing such things. 


“It does not matter what you bear, but how you bear it.” —Seneca