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Finding joy in WNY winters

At the end of my graduate studies, when I was deciding whether Western NY was the right location for me to stay long-term, I had serious doubts about the weather and its potential impact on my happiness. There were many good reasons for me to stay in Buffalo. However, at the time, I associated happiness with long summer days, proximity to the ocean, and being able to wear flip-flops and a light jacket in March - things I was able to do when growing up in the mid-Atlantic region of the country. And so, I began to look at research on the connection between the weather and happiness. Around that same time, I stumbled across the Danish concept of “Hygge”. I began reading about it, and found The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living by Meik Wiking to be a particularly enjoyable read on the topic.

The Little Book of Hygge is based on the Danish culture, which consistently ranks as one of the happiest cultures in the world, despite a climate with frequent cold days. The goal of the book is to explain a central value in the Danish culture, hygge. Hygge has no direct English translation. It can be interpreted as a sense of comfort, warmth, joy, contentment and connections to loved ones. Think of cozy sweaters, a warm cup of coffee, relaxing music and snow falling outside. This book walks you through how the Danish imbue this concept in to their everyday lives and the resulting impact on their life enjoyment and wellbeing. The book offers concrete suggestions for how to weave a sense of hygge into your own life in small ways through recipes, décor suggestions, family rituals, music choices and more.

What I believe is important about this book and relevant to many of my clients is that it challenges idea that winter months are a time of drudgery and impatience – something one withstands to get to renewed life of spring and summer. In WNY it sometimes feels like the “pause” button has been pushed on joy and that it’s stuck until the snow melts and the warmth of the sunshine returns. This book provides a way to reframe the impressions that many of us hold of the winter. It suggests that the cold outside can be experienced as an enjoyable contrast to the comforts of a glass of hot chocolate, warm baked goods, the flames in the fireplace, and a hearty meal shared with love ones. It suggests that winter can be experienced as a time of comfort, reflection and wellbeing. Importantly, it also highlights how the Danes continue to get outside all winter long – they bike to work, they enjoy outdoor sports. Finding ways to enjoy time spent outside year round is of particular relevance to all of us now as we continue to manage the restrictions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hygge also highlights the importance of close social connections and shared time with others. This idea of social support and shared enjoyment, essential to hygge, is consistent with the theory of Interpersonal Psychotherapy, an evidence-based treatment for depression and one of the reasons that we talk about relationships, communication and support from others so much in session. This has become more complicated during the pandemic while many of our interactions with family and friends are virtual. However, these connections are still vital to our wellbeing and call for our creativity to find ways to truly stay connected while apart.

In session, I don’t often share much from my personal life as our time is about you. However, in this forum, I want to share a few concrete ways that I use the concept of hygge to continuously try to transform my experience of WNY winters. Years ago, I made a list of each month of the year and identified something I look forward to in each of those months. When I struggled to find something I really liked about February, my family and I made a tradition of taking a long weekend together in February each year to watch movies, cook special meals together and treat ourselves with special lattes and a lack of to-do lists. Whenever there is a fresh, light snow falling, I try to get outside for a walk and practice mindfulness. I try to cook a big pot of soup or stew every Sunday afternoon for us to enjoy on busier weeknights during the winter. I invested in a truly warm, long winter coat and reliable snow boots. I have also found a hat, glove and scarf that I find visually appealing so that I will want to wear the layers and actually be warm instead of avoiding them. I have stopped checking the weather daily. It’s generally cold November through April, and that’s okay. In fact, that can even be great. As the years have passed since I have started these practices and others, I have found myself looking forward to the winter in a way I never thought possible. If these ideas appeal to you, I encourage you to read further about this concept of hygge and create you own list of small winter comforts that may bring you joy.

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