The Norwegian Philosophy of Thriving in Winter

Three young women sit close together, a tea kettle nestled in the front with seasonal items.
Photo: fotostorm/Getty Images

Winter is coming. And this year, even before the temperature drops, it’s feeling frostier.

More than ever, it seems set to be a season of survival for those of us who have already been through some form of quarantine. What we need — right now, long before what could be the most testing of times — is a strategy borrowed from those perplexing people who don’t just survive but thrive during the winter: the Norwegians.

And not just any Norwegians. The coldest ones.

Stanford psychologist Kari Leibowitz discovered in her pioneering study on winter mindset that the further north people live in Norway, the more positive they tend to feel about winter. Why? The secret seems to lie in a word that sounds suitably like a magic spell: koselig (pronounced “koohshlee” and with the related noun variation kos). This untranslatable word indicates “a sort of shared, safe togetherness,” according to Scandinavian language expert Arne Kruse. “It can describe a house, a situation, a meal, a conversation, or a person,” conveying “this feeling of safe, warm, and good.” He points out that we do have a very similar word to “kos” in English, and that’s “cozy.”

Koselig might remind you of hygge, the seemingly similar Scandinavian concept of coziness that had a cultural moment circa 2016. Candles, fireplaces, and blankets are important in both. But while koselig is related to hygge, it’s more comprehensive. Leibowitz explains that the koselig mindset is about making the best out of a bad situation, finding a way to “connect with the opportunities of this moment for greater reflection and deeper meaning and stronger relationships and social connection.”

Sounds like a perfect plan. But how can you incorporate koselig into your pandemic winter? The key is to create a unified theory of coziness that includes connecting with others and spending time out in nature.

Coziness

Even when it comes to coziness, a soothing, warm beverage alone isn’t enough, according to Zach Row-Heyveld, the exhibitions manager at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, where he curated an exhibition on koselig in 2017. “If you just open a packet of hot cocoa and serve it to your friends with your bright overhead lights on, that’s not very koselig. Whereas if you prepare homemade hot cocoa in a mug that you made, with candles, that is very koselig. … All the difference is in the subtlety.”

It’s about creating an entire cozy ecosystem that extends beyond a cozy setting and into human relationships.

Connection with others

Randi Skaug was the first Norwegian woman up Everest; she has also climbed the Seven Summits and skied in the Antarctic. She says, “Togetherness is a very important part of the word itself. Because you wouldn’t say to yourself, ‘This is koselig.’ You’d say it when there’s someone else around.”

This sense of togetherness is one way that koselig differs from the isolationist interior craze of hygge. While hygge celebrates JOMO (the joy of missing out), koselig is more about joined joviality. Yes, it’s about being cozy, but it’s about a connecting coziness. “We feel the happiness of being together,” Skaug explains.

Norwegian entertainment presenter Kjersti Flaa notes that a technological time out is another crucial element of koselig: “No phones allowed if it’s really koselig.” That’s because phones and other devices interfere with your ability to connect with those around you.

Connection with nature

The other aspect of koselig that distinguishes it from hygge is its outdoorsy outlook. Studies have shown that time in nature is good for your mental health; that doesn’t change when the weather does. “Outdoors has been an inspiration to find good days in my life,” Skaug says. “I feel well when I have been outdoors.”

Emile Holba is the organizer of the Ice Music Festival in Finse, Norway, where the instruments themselves are made from ice. “The Norwegians have outdoors in their DNA. Their office day starts early and finishes early and that is because they’re going to go for a run or a hike or a cross-country ski.”

Koselig can happen anywhere

You don’t have to have a cabin that backs onto a cross-country ski piste or a crew of sweater-clad roommates to share hot cocoa with by candlelight. Blogger Ingrid Opstad of That Scandinavian Feeling points out that “finding creative ways to be social whether with friends or family is a great way to incorporate the feeling of koselig in our lives. This can be as simple as a virtual coffee date with a friend to chat and feel connected.”

Similarly, when it comes to the outdoor element, Skaug reminds us, “You don’t have to do this big expedition, but even if you live in a city you can still walk.” She adds, “If we help someone, that’s very koselig. There’s always someone who needs help more than yourself.”

Koselig may be enigmatic, but it’s not unattainable. And its power, as Opstad puts it, is that “it is a way to find joy in those moments where it can feel difficult to do so.” Which makes it the perfect approach to any winter — this one especially.

James is a world wandering writer living in London, with a particular interest in mindfulness, travel and eggs.