Lessons From The Arctic Circle On Handling Depression

Though it has been documented since ancient times, clinical depression is viewed as an increasingly problematic affliction of the modern world — as of 2010, close to 300 million people, or 4 percent of all humans, were diagnosed with clinical depression, including 17 percent of Americans. (As this number obviously does not include undiagnosed, this already sizeable sum of sufferers is likely much larger.) Needless to say, this is a major public health problem warranting more understanding and treatment.

But who would guess that Tromsø, a small Norwegian town of around 70,000 located 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, might hold the key to deciphering the causes of depression and its solution?

As year-long resident of Tromsø, Kari Leibowitz, observes in The Atlantic, the town hardly seems like the sort of place that would accommodate a stress-free life, for while it is well governed and features all the modern amenities of a developed-world community, its location makes it subject to extreme variations in light.

During the Polar Night, which lasts from November to January, the sun doesn’t rise at all. Then the days get progressively longer until the Midnight Sun period, from May to July, when it never sets. After the midnight sun, the days get shorter and shorter again until the Polar Night, and the yearly cycle repeats.

Yet despite the long stretch of extreme darkness, and the equally disruptive periods of endless sunlight,  previous research found the denizens of Tromsø to be unusually resilient to wintertime depression, a common problem for most communities that experience such conditions. In fact, seasonal affective disorder is lower throughout northern Norway than even places that are farther south and much sunnier and brighter. How could this be?

Almost everyone I spoke with—in casual conversations, at parties, over psychology-department lunches at the university—had a theory as to why their city flourished during the Polar Night. Some people swore by cod-liver oil, or told me they used lamps that simulated the sun by progressively brightening at a specific time each morning. Others attributed their winter well-being to community and social involvement, Tromsø’s wealth of cultural festivals, or daily commutes made by ski. Most residents, though, simply talked about the Polar Night as if it wasn’t a big deal. Many even expressed excitement about the upcoming season and the skiing opportunities it would bring.

[…]

It dawned on me that the baseline assumption of my original research proposal had been off: In Tromsø, the prevailing sentiment is that winter is something to be enjoyed, not something to be endured. According to my friends, winter in Tromsø would be full of snow, skiing, the northern lights, and all things koselig, the Norwegian word for “cozy.” By November, open-flame candles would adorn every café, restaurant, home, and even workspace. Over the following months I learned firsthand that, far from a period of absolute darkness, the Polar Night in Tromsø is a time of beautiful colors and soft, indirect light. Even during the darkest times, there are still two or three hours of light a day as the sun skirts just below the horizon, never fully rising. During the longer “days” of the Polar Night, in November and January, the skies can be filled with up to six hours of sunrise and sunset-like colors.

It was now clear to me that my original research questions were colored by my own culturally biased perspective—in New Jersey, where I grew up, almost no one looked forward to winter, myself included (I even chose to attend college in Atlanta to escape the cold). In my experience, people simply got through the wintertime darkness on the way to a brighter, happier season. But in Tromsø, the Polar Night seemed to hold its own unique opportunities for mental and emotional flourishing.

Could it be that the popular, though increasingly frowned upon, refrain that the melancholic need only to change their mindset to feel better have some validity? It seems too easy to believe, and I for one would be skeptical about there not being some chemical and biological basis for certain cases of depression.

The answer may lie in the concept of “subject mindsets” — defined by Stanford University psychology professor Alia Crum as “the lenses through which information is perceived, organized, and interpreted”, and throughout one’s emotional and psychological state can be influenced.

In her research and her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, [psychologist Carol] Dweck details the ways a growth mindset (the belief that traits like intelligence and talent can be developed through sustained effort over time) leads to greater success than a fixed mindset (the belief that individual qualities are set for life). Those in a fixed mindset, she argues, often fail to see feedback as an opportunity for learning, and are more likely to view criticism as a personal attack. Conversely, those in a growth mindset tend to be more open to learning from their mistakes, taking risks, and pursuing self-improvement. Dweck’s belief, now widely accepted, is that mindset can be changed, and that a person can move from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.

Crum’s work expands on this idea by investigating how mindset influences not only achievement and success, but also physical health. In one of her studies, for example, people who had a positive mindset towards stress, viewing it as productive rather than debilitating, had healthier levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In another, hotel employees who believed that cleaning rooms was good exercise saw decreases in their body fat and blood pressure, compared to those who simply viewed it as work. As her research illustrates, mindsets aren’t only “fixed” or “malleable:” They can be positive or negative, constructive or destructive.

Utilizing Crum’s questionnaire for measuring attitudes towards stress, Leibowitz and a Norwegian colleague developed the Wintertime Mindset Scale, a ten-item scale that asked respondents to rate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “There are many things to enjoy about the winter” or  “I find the winter months dark and depressing”. Over 230 Norwegian adults, evenly divided between northern and southern residents, took part.

The survey results indicated that wintertime mindset may indeed play a role in mental health and well-being in Norway. The Wintertime Mindset Scale had strong positive correlations with every measure of well-being we examined, including the Satisfaction with Life Scale (a widely used survey that measures general life satisfaction), and the Personal Growth Composite (a scale that measures openness to new challenges). The people who had a positive wintertime mindset, in other words, tended to be the same people who were highly satisfied with their lives and who pursued personal growth.

We also found that wintertime mindset was significantly correlated with latitude in Norway— those living farther north tended to have a more positive wintertime mindset. With its extreme climate, Svalbard is almost certainly home to a self-selecting group; most residents only live on the island for a few years at a time. (Svalbard has several kindergartens but only a handful of high-school students, indicative of how often young researchers or oil workers come with their families and leave before their children are grown.) But even when the residents of Svalbard were excluded from the sample, those residing in northern Norway still had a significantly more positive wintertime mindset than those living in southern Norway. This isn’t a case of self-selection between snow birds in Florida and ski lovers in Maine; respondents living in southern Norway reside at roughly the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska, and still have cold, dark, and long winters—but not the total Polar Night (or Midnight Sun). Southern Norwegians still experience winter; they just don’t experience it as positively as their compatriots in the north.

Leibowitz concludes that while correlation does not equal causation, and a positive mindset is far from a substitute for clinical treatment of serious forms of depression, how we as individuals — and in the aggregate, as a culture and society — react to the circumstances around us can go a long way towards shaping psychological and emotional well being.

I am reminded of ancient philosophies like Stoicism and Epicureanism, which seek to cultivate a rational and constructive way to navigate through life’s inevitable challenges and discomforts. It is not easy of course, and certainly northern Norwegians did not adapt positively to their circumstances right away. But in lieu of any solution to the many forces in the universe that our beyond our control, the next best thing is to do our best to cope — whether by altering one’s mindset, through therapy or medication, or all of the above.

What are your thoughts?

 

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