Skip to main content

I slipped my kids’ new sweatshirts over their heads before we went outside to the park, eager to welcome the crisp fall morning. Going to the park early in the morning before anyone else was there had become part of our summer routine, and I was excited to carry it into the new season. But that joy was soon coupled with another feeling: dread of winter, and the cold weather that would keep us indoors.

We’ve always enjoyed getting outside, but like so many other people, we’ve been spending even more time than usual outdoors because of the pandemic. Time we used to spend at the library or wandering the aisles of stores has been replaced with playing outside, even if it’s just to draw with chalk on the sidewalk outside our apartment building. As I looked toward winter, I imagined us feeling trapped indoors as the temperatures dropped and wind howled outside.

Not long after that moment of dread, I happened upon a National Geographic article explaining the Norwegian concept of friluftsliv—an embrace of nature and of time spent outdoors as part of an everyday lifestyle. Not only did it give me a fresh perspective, but also a new determination for how I would approach winter: I refuse to be trapped indoors.

Adapting to winter instead of enduring it

The word friluftsliv is credited to Norwegian poet and playwright Henrik Ibsen, and it dates back to the 1850s. Literally, friluftsliv is a combination of three words: “free-air-life,” often translated as “open-air living.” The word first appeared in Ibsen’s epic poem “On the Heights” (which you can read starting on page 150 of this compilation, if you’re interested), though the concept is, of course, much older. It’s also not isolated to Norway, but extends to other Scandinavian countries, too.

As Swedish American author Linda Åkeson McGurk explains in her book, There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather, the concept of friluftsliv is ingrained in Scandinavian culture. Outdoor time is prioritized in the school and daycare systems, as well as in national policies that encourage outdoor exploration. But it’s also just a normal part of everyday life, even on the coldest of days.

“Scandinavians get through the winter by maintaining a sense of normalcy,” McGurk writes. “Snow happens. Sleet happens. Ice happens. Cold temperatures happen. Life goes on.”

While some of us may be inclined to complain about bad weather, the Norwegians have a saying to the contrary: “Det finnes ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær,” or “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing” (hence, the title of McGurk’s book).

These ideas play into what health psychologist Kari Leibowitz describes as a “positive wintertime mindset.” As she found during her time in Tromsø, Norway, where the sun doesn’t rise from November to January, the mindset “that winter is something to be enjoyed, not something to be endured” is a key part of thriving through the winter months.

“Having a positive wintertime mind-set doesn’t mean denying the realities of winter or pretending you like every aspect of winter,” Liebowitz explains. “When it snows, it’s equally true that you might have to shovel your driveway as it is that the light is diffuse and beautiful. But which one of these you pay more attention to makes a huge difference in how you experience that snowfall.”

Making the most of life—pandemic or not—by being outside

By now, it’s old news that outdoor gatherings are considered safer than indoor ones as COVID-19 continues to rage, so in part, braving the cold to get together is a matter of safety.

But spending time outdoors is also just plain good for our physical and mental health, whether we’re in the midst of a pandemic or not.

One recent study conducted in Tokyo, Japan, explored the connection between nature and people’s mental health in spring of 2020. Researchers couldn’t go so far as to claim cause-and-effect, but they did find positive connections between nature and mental well-being, even during a pandemic: “We found that the frequency of greenspace use and the existence of green window views from within the home was associated with increased levels of self‐esteem, life satisfaction, and subjective happiness and decreased levels of depression, anxiety, and loneliness.”

A set of three studies published years before the pandemic points to the ways in which nature helps us deal with life’s difficulties. For just 15 minutes, participants walked in a nature setting or an urban setting, or watched videos of those settings. Researchers found that “exposure to nature increased connectedness to nature, attentional capacity, positive emotions, and ability to reflect on a life problem.” Unsurprisingly, these effects played out more strongly for those who experienced nature in real life than virtually.

And as Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, wrote in an op-ed earlier this year, nature can also afford us a sense of security: “The view of a tree line, a distant turning wave, a pigeon on a window ledge, a deer with antenna ears raised toward us, eyes intent, all remind us that we are not alone in the world and that life always finds a way.”

It's one thing to read about friluftsliv and the research that supports the benefits of being outside; it’s another to make the daily changes necessary to adapt to enjoying life outside in the winter. As we venture further in the pandemic winter, here are a few practical considerations that may help us embrace time spent outdoors so we can reap the benefits.

01. Shifting our vocabulary

One way to begin to develop a positive winter mindset is to change the way we talk about the season.

Leibowitz writes about how her friend Fern in Tromsø preferred to call the months of Polar Night the “blue time” rather than “dark time,” focusing on the blue hues of the season rather than on the darkness.

“Fern’s comment was indicative of one of the ways she purposefully orients herself toward a positive wintertime mindset,” Liebowitz writes. “After hearing this, I couldn’t help but pay more attention to the soft blue haze that settled over everything, and I consciously worked to think of this light as cozy rather than dark.”

I’ve been working on a similar shift in my vocabulary. Instead of commenting that it’s “so windy,” I’ve taken a page from A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories and called it a “blustery day.” Rather than defaulting to “It’s too cold” when my two-year-old son asks to go outside at 6:30 a.m., when we’re barely awake and still in our pajamas, I’ve tried to reframe it: “Right now we’re going to stay cozy inside, and we’ll bundle up and go out later.” Even though I’m delaying our outdoor time until it is, in fact, a bit warmer, I’m not thinking about the cold with such dread because I’m not talking about it in a negative way.

02. Bundling up for success

Though we usually associate “dress for success” with work, it’s equally important for outdoor recreation. And though getting good winter gear can be somewhat costly, consider the alternative: not being able to go outside simply because of your wardrobe.

In past years, I’ve made do with a jacket, hat, and gloves. This year, I’ve added some base layers to put on under my jeans, some proper winter boots, and for really cold days, I even bought some fleece-lined pants. Though we don’t get much snow here, I also got snowsuits for my kids, just to ensure they stay warm—and so we can go out for more than 15-minute bursts.

At first, I was hesitant to spend the money on some of these items: I usually won’t spend more than $25 on a pair of pants, and my fleece-lined ones came in at $50 on sale. But when I thought about the months of cold weather ahead, and how much use I would get out of them, I realized they would be worth every penny. As a bonus, knowing I would get to use these new items actually made me look forward to the colder weather.

03. Finding accountability

As in so many other areas of life, a little bit of accountability goes a long way when it comes to getting outside in cold weather.

When I first encountered the National Geographic article linked above, I immediately thought of a dear friend of mine, so I texted it to her. She was already familiar with friluftsliv, and in fact, was already following the Instagram account of the daddy-daughter duo mentioned in the article. (The account is @minaogmeg, and if you like pictures of little girls bundled in full adventure gear with a baby doll in tow, and if you want a break from perfectly curated feeds, it’s delightful!)

My friend also suggested that we keep each other up-to-date on how we’re living out friluftsliv. Though we haven’t done that as much as we would like, it’s helpful to know that there is someone else trying to embrace this lifestyle with me.

04. Setting a goal, even if it’s small

There are some days that I really don’t feel like bundling up and going out, and I can come up with plenty of excuses. But the fact of the matter is, when I spend time outside, I’m a much happier person—and so are my kids. Going outside is often the best remedy to crankiness, sibling squabbles, and even my own tiredness. Knowing how good we’ll all feel when we come back inside has helped me prioritize fresh air as a basic part of our day—as much a part of it as eating or getting dressed.

This winter, I’ve made it a goal to get outside at least once a day—even if it’s just for 10 or 15 minutes. Research suggests that even a little bit of nature can make a big difference. One study found that people who spent 120 minutes or more in nature over the course of a week “had consistently higher levels of both health and well-being than those who reported no exposure.”

Though the researchers emphasized that further studies are needed in order to make health recommendations, they noted that it seems like 120 minutes “may reflect a kind of ‘threshold’” for seeing the benefits of time spent in nature.

I’m sure there will be days when we spend hours outdoors, and others where 10 or 15 minutes seems like a lot. And while there may be some days when we don’t get outside at all, having a goal in mind is helping me make those days the exception, not the norm. (Even viewing nature through a window, at home or at work, has been “linked with higher life satisfaction.”) Embracing nature can happen in small, simple ways, like taking a quick walk around the block, or getting cozy with a pile of blankets and sipping hot cocoa on the balcony or patio.

05. Looking ahead to the future

This year, we’ve had to endure myriad changes, both large and small, to our lives. Some—thankfully—are temporary. Others will very likely stick around. Spending more time outdoors can be one of the changes that stays with us for the better and continues to have a positive effect on our lives, even when the pandemic is long past.

Looking at spending time in nature as a lasting positive change, and not just as another pandemic inconvenience, is another way we can reframe our mindset about winter. Maybe this will be the winter when we learn a new outdoor hobby—one we’ll look forward to in winters to come. Maybe going for winter walks with friends, hot drinks in hand, will become a new favorite pastime. Or maybe we’ll simply learn that we can, in fact, get outside, even when the weather isn’t so inviting.