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The Exceptional Truth About Winter and Discomfort

It was January 2016 in Philadelphia and I cursed as I put on three pairs of pants, four jackets and enormous boots. I grabbed my bike and set off towards our Grad School studio, annoyed that the bike paths had not been plowed.

My tires cut through the snow and I fought to stay balanced as I pedaled. I had snuck in three hours of sleep during a weekend-long Hackathon. I needed to get back to build an app that was sure to win the $5,000 prize.

The third time I fell over in the snow because, of course, my brakes were useless, I got up and looked around the quiet urban scenery. Why did it I sign up for this?

Happy People

In 2010, Warner Herzog released a documentary about fur trappers in the Siberian Taiga. In the film titled “Happy People,” he argued that a life of simplicity and honesty leads to the happiest outlook.

These are people that ski from hut to hut in the darkest and coldest of winter, checking their fur traps, for four to six weeks at a time. It sounds satisfying, sure, but would it make someone happier than egg nog lattes?

I grew up in Austin Texas, a town full of sunshine and blue skies. When I moved to college in Ohio, I loved the colors in the autumn, but they signaled the arrival of another more extreme season. The lake effect from nearby Lake Eerie would dump snow basically any time in winter or spring. I once returned from a sunny beach-filled spring break trip to find that it had snowed a foot in mid April. It was a bummer, to say the least.

Ultimately I found the something comforting about the cold winters. I’ve lived in many cities during my 20’s and 30’s. Most recently I lived in San Diego, where the temperature rarely ventures outside the range of 55 – 75 degrees, and I felt like something was missing. What was it?

Wintertime Mindset

The UN World Happiness Report ranks Scandinavian countries at the top of their list of happiest people. Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden are not places with warm, sunny weather year round. They have cold dark winters, but in these countries people don’t cope with winter. They enjoy it.

Danes and Norwegians talk about looking forward to winter because they get to spend time indoors with friends and family. Yes they also have winter sports, from cross country skiing to ice skating, but they pass many many hours in darkness.

In fact, in the northernmost regions of Norway, the sun doesn’t fully rise from November to January. A psychology study from Stanford found that in the town of Tromso, Norway the reporting of seasonal depression is the same as Montgomery County, Maryland, which lies almost 2,000 miles further south.

One of the best things about cold winters is the coziness you experience. After persevering through the cold during your day, I treat myself to hot chocolate at home, or top off my beverage with some brandy. It’s a different kind of comfort. And it makes the contrast even sweeter when I get to sip margaritas in the heat of summer.

Realistic Expectations

When they looked at Olympic athletes it turned out that the third place finishers were happier than the athletes who placed second. Why would someone be happier to place lower in the rankings?

Because the bronze medalist compares themself to the person not on the podium, while the silver medalist compares themself to first place. One study even showed that silver winners are more likely to die at a younger age than the winners of bronze or gold medals.

This is not to say aim low, but rather that you should prepare mentally for worse outcomes. People’s thoughts are influenced not by what happened but instead by the might-have-been. So in the winter I aspire to read a little and perhaps bake something new. But otherwise I temper my expectations and appreciate the coziness of the season.

Back in Philly

After biking through two feet of fresh snow, I arrived on campus sweating profusely despite the 15 degree temperature. And I was about to get a surprise lesson during our Hackathon demo.

The challenge of winter differs from finishing a long trail run or a tough hour-long workout. It is a continued grind, not a one-day event. It’s not just one week. It’s several months.

When you get a nice sunny day with little wind, you accept that. If you find yourself in that just-above-freezing rain, which I find to be the most insufferable conditions, you accept that as well.

We finished our app, sat at a table and demoed it for the longest hour of my life. Some of the people would stop by and ask to see how it worked. This was the first app I had ever made, definitely not possible without the help of Sarah, my classmate, and David, the Swiss software engineer. We hoped for some honors or awards, but the competition was fierce.

As we showed off the app I felt extremely elated. Maybe it was due to lack of sleep, but I was proud of what we had made. And I lowered my expectation for winning a monetary prize.

We built an app that ran perfectly well on an iPad. I overcame the challenge of fresh snow. I hadn’t completely changed my perception of the dark, cold activity-limiting season, but that January I got a taste of winter enjoyment.

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