In 2016, Stanford health psychologist, Kari Leibowitz, had spent almost a year in the small Norwegian city of Tromsø, whose residents are infamously known for a peculiar statistical anomaly: they love winter.
They’re not just any ski-loving, hot-drink-drinking folk — no, Tromsø residents actually defy all logic because of their astonishingly low rates of seasonal depression in a town that, in all honesty, demands it.
Tromsø sits 217 miles north of the Arctic Circle and is the epitome of seasonal variation. The Polar Night, a time whence the sun doesn’t rise at all, lasts between November to January; from May to July, Tromsø experiences the Midnight Sun —ever-present daylight.
As Kari notes in an article she had written for The Atlantic back in 2016:
“One thing seems clear: Residents of northern Norway seem able to avoid much of the wintertime suffering experienced elsewhere — including, paradoxically, in warmer, brighter, more southern locations.”
So what accounts for this? As you’ve likely already guessed: mindset. But, like with everything, there’s more to it than that.
Image courtesy Michelle Maria
Kari had been influenced by Stanford professor Dr. Alia Crum, who inspired her to consider mindset as the underlying factor behind Tromsø’s “sunny perspective of the sunless winter”, as Kari puts it.
Dr. Crum succinctly defines mindsets as the “lenses through which information is perceived, organized and interpreted.” (A good introduction to her work can be gleamed from a TEDx talk she gave back in 2017, titled “Change Your Mindset, Change The Game”). Now, Crums own work is influenced by the work of psychologist Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.
Dweck had been the first to present a tremendously important distinction on the concept of mindsets — that of fixed mindsets versus growth mindsets.
Mindsets, as we already know, are the interfaces through which we observe reality and, until recently, they had just been as inconsequential as the intangible concept of a half-full glass or rose-colored glasses. Today, however, we’re seeing more and more tangible and measurable results (like, say, rates of depression in a town where the sun doesn’t rise for months on end) emanating from such intangible ideas.
Mindsets influence everything, much more than we may think they do. They may be (and likely are) the reason we love or hate our jobs; the reason we’re in loving or loveless relationships; the reason we succeed or fail in our ambitions. More importantly and generally, however, they may be the reason we do or do not grow.
“According to Crum’s research, individuals can hold the mindset that stress is either debilitating (bad for your health and performance) or enhancing (motivating and performance-boosting). The truth is that stress is both; it can cause athletes to crumble under pressure and lead CEOs to have heart attacks, but it can also sharpen focus and critical thinking, giving athletes, CEOs and the rest of us the attention and adrenaline to succeed in high-pressure situations.” — Kari Leibowitz
As Dweck detailed, and Crum reiterated, and Leibowitz exemplified: mindsets are everything, especially when we look at them through the context of our entire personality — of who we fundamentally are and how we personally evolve. And so I was all too eager to pick Kari’s brain and get some more insights about her first-hand experience on this subject.
Image courtesy Jacqueline Macou
Q: You’re now a few years removed from this experience and, at the end of your article in The Atlantic, you wrote that your personal experiment in Tromsø has convinced you that the right mindset can change everything. I want to ask: has it worked for you? Have you grown to love the winter, regardless of where you are, and have you used this idea in other areas of life?
A: Absolutely! I’m a bit biased because I’ve devoted my career to studying the power of mindset. While I studied mindsets about winter in Tromsø, now I’m part of the Stanford Mind & Body Lab (mbl.stanford.edu), and we study the power of mindsets to influence health. A lot of my research now focuses on how our mindsets play an important role in health outcomes, and how mindsets can be shaped — for better or worse — during healthcare encounters.
I saw this with my own mindset in Tromsø, where I went from being a winter-hater to a winter-lover, and I saw firsthand that when my mindset shifted from seeing winter as dreadful to seeing winter as delightful, I was better able to appreciate the special opportunities winter provides for cozy activities and snowy outdoor recreation, and I felt inspired to enjoy the winter season.
Even now while I live in California, I still try to embrace the positive wintertime mindset, because even though it doesn’t get very cold here it still gets dark earlier and is rainy in the winter. So instead of focusing on all of the things I don’t do when it’s wintery here — like go for long walks in the evening or spend the day picnicking outside — I try to be grateful for all the opportunities to do other things, like notice how green it is after it rains, enjoy being cozy inside watching Netflix or reading, or lean into being creative at the pottery studio.
I’ve also worked to apply mindset research on health in my own life — for example, trying to lean into the mindset that exercise is indulgent and enjoyable, a break from my work and something to look forward to, rather than something painful that I’m supposed to do. And I try to cultivate the belief that medications will work for me, because we know from research on the placebo effect that having the mindset that treatment will work makes them more effective.
Q. Crum’s work isn’t necessarily groundbreaking in that we know, surely, that perspective means everything. But her work, and yours, is still crucial in that it prompts another ever-important step towards underlining the true power of the subconscious mind, of the placebo effect or of how crucial our perception of reality is to begin with. As you work in this field, do you see a trend towards actualizing the more subliminal aspects of our daily experience? I.e. How our motivations shape us, how we value our predispositions, how important self-awareness can really be, etc.
A. I do, and one of my goals is to help make these unconscious or implicit mindsets more explicit. We all have mindsets about lots of different things, and these mindsets are shaping our motivation and our goals, but we might not always be aware of our mindsets or the ways that they influence us.
I believe that by being more explicit about our mindsets, we can use them more deliberately and choose what mindset is most useful for us. For example, I always took my wintertime mindset — that winter was dreadful — for granted. I never really thought about it. But by thinking explicitly about the mindsets I saw in Tromsø, I was able to consciously cultivate a more winter-positive mindset.
Likewise, a lot of my research now involves helping healthcare providers recognize and shape mindsets in their patients. By making these mindsets more explicit, for providers and patients alike, then providers and patients can work together to cultivate the most useful mindsets that will lead to the best health outcomes.
Q. In your article, you’ve referenced a very important distinction presented by psychologist Carol Dweck — that of a growth mindset (a belief that traits can be developed over time) versus a fixed mindset (the belief that qualities are set for life).
Two part question: what do you think accounts for someone to be in one mindset over another and, secondly, do you think it’s possible to change from one to another (ideally, from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset) with relative ease or do you think it’s up to each individual person?
A. Yes, Carol Dweck’s work on growth and fixed mindsets about intelligence is perhaps the most well known work on mindset, although now we’re starting to talk more about many different kinds of mindsets beyond just growth and fixed.
Our mindsets are shaped by lots of things, including our culture, our environment, how we were raised, and how people respond to us in the world. For example, it’s common for very smart children who are frequently praised for their intelligence to develop this fixed mindset about intelligence. Since they were constantly told that they’re smart, they assume that this is a fixed quality. However, praising kids for effort teaches them that skills can grow.
I know that it’s possible to switch from a fixed to a growth mindset — the work of Carol Dweck and many others supports that sometimes even a simple intervention can help someone adopt a growth mindset. I think this is part of the power of making implicit mindsets explicit — once we’re aware of them, we can work to shift our mindsets.
It’s not always easy — we all have the things we struggle with, and even I find myself doing things and saying things like “I’m just not good at this,” which represents a very fixed view. But in my mindful and self-aware moments, I can recognize and catch myself that that’s a fixed mindset and remind myself that actually, if I put in the effort, I can get good at that thing.
So I think each person has a lot of power to change their mindset, but of course the context they’re in makes that easier or harder. A huge recent study by Yaeger, Dweck, and others at hundreds of schools across the country found that growth mindset interventions worked best in schools that supported and reinforced the idea that intelligence can grow, and these interventions didn’t work in schools that counteracted this message. That was similar to my experience in Tromsø — going to a place that was so winter-positive made it very easy to cultivate that mindset. So the context also plays a big role.
Q. So what would you say to someone who’s in a fixed mindset and doesn’t feel they can adopt a growth mindset?
A. I would encourage them to think about something — anything — that they’ve seen themselves get better at over time. Math, reading, painting, singing, running, soccer, computer programming, gardening, cooking — we all have experiences doing things that we’re bad at at first and then getting better over time. So everyone has an experience of seeing growth in some area. I would hold on to that example as an indication that, if that skill or area or expertise can be grown, so can others.
Q. Have you had the chance to ask anyone (whether it was the residents in Tromsø or elsewhere) if they’re specifically aware of the fact that their respective mindsets can have such a profound effect on their life? In other words, have you asked them (or even wondered yourself) if they’re convincing themselves to like something under their own intention or does it often seem to be an unintended consequence?
A. This is what I study, so I’ve asked lots of people about this! I think a lot of people don’t always think about it in terms of mindsets or aren’t aware, but once you start talking about it they have an experience of it. This happens a lot with the healthcare providers I work with — they might not be calling their patients’ mindsets “mindsets,” but once I start describing them they have lots of examples that they see in their work. Mindsets aren’t some mysterious force that just acts on us without our awareness and that we are powerless against. They’re actually an extremely helpful way of understanding the world — the world is a complex and uncertain place, but we have to process that information and make sense of it in order to act. Mindsets help us do this, and sometimes we’re aware of them and sometimes we’re not.
Want to see more of Kari's work? Visit her website at www.karileibowitz.com
Coming soon: From Polar Nights to Urban Days — a comparison of winter-lovers to heat swells of urban jungles, where crime rates rise with thermostats