Surviving Like a Scandinavian

Each winter, Scandinavians survive some of the darkest, coldest days on earth.

Winter in Scandinavia – a European subregion that typically includes Denmark, Norway, and Sweden – often lasts from November through April. The region sees two feet or more of snow each season, and temperatures easily dip below 0 degrees Fahrenheit, particularly as you get closer to the Artic Circle.

But these countries regularly rank as some of the happiest in the world.

What’s the Scandinavian secret to surviving long, cold, dark winters and still staying happy?

Hygge.

Hygge (pronounced who-guh) reminds people to celebrate living, seek out simple pleasures, and find comfort in connecting with others.

Living the hygge way can mean spending time snuggled up with friends around a roaring fire while laughing and sharing stories late into the night. Or it can mean enjoying a simple, homemade soup with your family, in a candle-lit room brimming with happy conversation.

But for many folks in cold-winter climates around the world, it’s difficult to muster any hygge…

Depression, lethargy, and sleep disruptions can overshadow someone’s outlook during winter. And in the U.S., one in five adults experiences a significant mood change once winter rolls in.

This change is known as either seasonal affective disorder (“SAD”), or as the less severe winter blues.

When the daylight hours are few, we naturally want to sleep more. Sunlight regulates the quantity and timing at which our brains produce the sleep hormone melatonin.

When the sun sets, our bodies start naturally producing melatonin to prime us for bedtime. Melatonin levels typically peak around three or four in the morning to keep us asleep while we’re dreaming. Then levels gradually decrease, preparing us to naturally wake up around the time the sun is rising again.

But in the winter, many of us wake up for work before the sun rises and arrive home after the sun has already set. And when we get home, we still need to make dinner, spend time with our loved ones, and decompress before we can put the day to rest… all in the dark of night.

Often our busy lives get even busier during this time of year. Making travel plans, doing some holiday shopping, cooking, sleeping in different beds, and being around people we haven’t seen in a while get stacked on top of all the other typical demands on our time.

Add to this the colds and flus we all get this time of year, and you’ve got the perfect recipe for stress or worse.

Luckily, we can interrupt a lot of these negative feelings, reduce stress, and fight those winter blues…

Our brains make four hormones that directly impact our levels of happiness. They’re known as the “happy hormones.”

When our happy-hormone levels are too low, our mood suffers and our bodies can’t function well. So, when we’re feeling down, we can help pick ourselves back up and change our brain chemistry by encouraging the production and release of these four chemicals…

Dopamine Dopamine is a chemical messenger for neurons (called a neurotransmitter) that is made in the brain and released when you’re expecting a reward. Dopamine contributes to feelings of alertness, focus, motivation, and happiness. A flood of dopamine can even make you feel euphoric.

Yoga is an easy way to increase our dopamine levels. A 2014 study measured the blood levels of dopamine in 104 men aged 20 to 50 before and after three months of completing a daily one-hour yoga practice. A significant increase in dopamine was detected in the participants aged 20 to 39 after three months of practicing yoga.

Serotonin Serotonin plays a huge role throughout the brain and body. It helps regulate our mood and promote feelings of well-being. It also influences our sleeping, eating, and digesting processes. Studies show we can naturally balance our serotonin levels by thinking positively, getting sunlight, and exercising. Even when it’s cold outside, I like to go for a 20-minute walk when the sun is high in the sky.

Oxytocin Oxytocin is released when you physically and emotionally connect with the people you care about. It strengthens the bonds between people, plus boosts our happiness by producing feelings of love, trust, and security. We naturally boost our oxytocin levels when we do things like spend time with friends, meditate, and have sex.

According to a 2015 study from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, couples who have sex at least once a week reported higher levels of happiness. That’s largely due to the increase in oxytocin that sex triggers.

Endorphins Endorphins are considered the body’s natural pain relievers. They help us cope with pain and stress by suppressing the pain receptors in the brain and activating the brain’s pleasure receptors. Endorphins get released when we move our bodies, so they play a role in why exercising makes us feel good.

And you don’t have to exercise too hard or even work up a sweat. Lots of studies over the years show that moving, even if you’re simply working in your garden, increases your endorphin levels.

So, make sure you get up and get moving every day to increase your happy hormones and stop those winter blues.

On Thursday, we’ll share more tips for fighting depression this time of year. But in the meantime, we’d love to hear how you keep your mind and body healthy during the cold winter months. Share your tips with us at [email protected].

What We’re Reading

Here’s to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
December 14, 2021