Some people suffer from what psychologists call Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. For instance, people who live in areas of the globe where winter days are very short and it’s very cold. Yet, others seem to cope remarkably well with the hardship, for instance, the inhabitants of Tromsø, Norway, latitude 69 degrees north. They receive only two or three hours of light per day during the winter, and yet they don’t suffer from SAD. Why not?
An article by David Robson in the Guardian explains, focusing on the fascinating research conducted by health psychologist Kari Leibowitz. The answer, broadly speaking, is the mindset. Leibowitz’s research builds on decades of studies demonstrating that the mental framing of stressful events dramatically influences how we respond to such events. We cope better with dark winter nights, lockdowns, and what not if we consciously reframe the hardship or setback as a challenge. The Stoics would not have been surprised. Modern practitioner Bill Irvine wrote a whole book on precisely this technique, The Stoic Challenge. Epictetus famously put it this way:
“It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.” (Enchiridion 5)
While pretty obvious, this observation encounters a lot of resistance. People seem hell bent on thinking as if events come pre-labeled with “catastrophe” or “great news!” written on them. But a moment’s reflection shows that this is a basic ontological mistake: events are mind-independent facts about the world, while judgments are creations of the human mind. Keeping the two things distinct is precisely what Stoics and the inhabitants of Tromsø do in order to cope with whatever it is they need to cope with.
This doesn’t mean that a given judgments of a particular event is not reasonable or justified. It just means that it is useful to keep in mind that the judgment does not spring forth automatically from the event itself. For instance, a worldwide pandemic can very fairly be labelled as a challenge that we’d rather not have to face. But it can also be seen as an opportunity for personal growth, for innovative thinking, and even for a renewed effort at national solidarity and international cooperation. The facts are the same, how we think about them is up to us. And our thinking is what in turn both affect our moods and directs our actions.
Back to Norway. Leibowitz conducted her research by way of a “wintertime mindset scale.” She asked her subjects to rate their agreement or disagreement with the following statements:
“There are many things to enjoy about the winter.”
“I love the coziness of the winter months.”
“Winter brings many wonderful seasonal changes.”
“Winter is boring.”
“Winter is a limiting time of year.”
“There are many things to dislike about winter.”
The results were clear: the answers given were excellent predictors of the subjects’ mood over the coming winter. Those who chose to see the dark season as an opportunity fared much better in terms of mental health and life satisfaction than those who tended to regard the same astronomical and meteorological facts as a setback. Indeed, when researchers compared three Norwegian cities characterized by different latitudes (and therefore different day lengths) the results were stunning: people in Svalbard (78 degrees north) had a more positive mindset than those in Tromsø (69 degrees north), who in turn were much more optimistic than people in Oslo (60 degrees north).
This isn’t magic. It’s not like thinking differently about the winter will somehow make the temperatures higher and the days longer. But it will significantly change how you feel and act about it. When I talk about Stoicism people often tell me that they can’t help it, they just feel that way. They are empirically wrong: we can very much help how we feel about things, by consciously rephrasing the situation and our attitude. It requires effort and practice, but there is a huge amount of research showing that it works.
What Leibowitz and the Stoics are suggesting is not simple “positive thinking,” which does not actually work (empirically) and is arguably ethically problematic (if one puts a premium on truth for its own sake). Think of it in terms of the classical “the glass is half empty or half full” contrast. The glass is what it is, let’s say that at the moment it has 50% of its volume occupied by a delicious Chianti. How you think about it is up to you: you could regret that you have already drank half the glass and mope around because there is now little wine left for you to enjoy. Or you can say, wow, not only I have drank some delicious Chianti, but I still have a good amount left to savor! Substitute the years of your life, lived and projected, for the Chianti in the glass, and you’ll appreciate the point.
Take, again, the current pandemic. I am completely aware of the fact that, so far, I have been among the lucky ones. I have not been struck by the virus, and I kept my job. Nevertheless, it has been a challenging time. One that I have consciously chosen to treat as an opportunity to refine my Stoic practice. As a result, during my daily walks with my wife I have discovered delightful nooks in my neighborhood I didn’t know existed, I take pleasure in coming up with new ways to engage my students remotely, I have started to host online events across the world that would have been impossible to manage in person, and I have been focused on writing a new book. Do I look forward to the possible end of the pandemic? Of course. But right now I am living the life I have, not the one I wish I had. And some of my newly developed habits will stay, because they turned out to be unexpectedly valuable.
Gregory M. Walton and Shannon T. Brady have written a very useful article, “Bad things reconsidered,” part of a collection entitled Applications of Social Psychology: How Social Psychology Can Contribute to the Solution of Real-World Problems, edited by Joseph P. Forgas, William D. Crano, Klaus Fiedler (Routledge, 2020). In it, we find a handy summary of what they refer to as five principles for representing bad events effectively. They are:
1. Prevent negative labels. Resist the temptation of using terms like “bad,” “horrible,” “catastrophic,” and so forth, concerning either events or people, especially yourself.
2. Communicate “you are not the only one.” Remind yourself that other people have faced similar challenges, and they have coped. So why shouldn’t you?
3. Recognize specific, non-pejorative causes. If something isn’t going according to plan it may not be because you are lazy, stupid, or whatever. Look for the actual causes, so you can attempt to correct them. Even if something is your fault, be both specific and non-judgmental. It’s much more productive.
4. Forecast improvement. Don’t assume that things will turn out badly. Focus on the process, not the outcome, and remind yourself that you don’t actually have foreknowledge, you can only work with what is happening right here, right now.
5. Recognize opportunities. Even setbacks can become opportunities for new directions and constructive lifework on your part. Bring your mind to do your best in the given situation, rather than wasting energy by despairing about it.
Not surprisingly, these principles are also scattered throughout the Stoic literature. As Marcus Aurelius puts it:
“Our actions may be impeded … but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” (Meditations V.20)
So, what currently stands in your way? And how can you use it to forge a new path forward?