Avoiding the winter blues.
In Britain the weather is a national obsession. According to the BBC, recent research showed that 94% of British respondents admit to having conversed about the weather in the past six hours, while 38% say they have in the past 60 minutes. And this year we have had a lot to talk about. What a summer! Long hot days and light, balmy evenings raised the spirit, and happiness levels, of a nation. As we now move into autumn we can still look forward to some sunshine and time out in the beauty of nature. But what happens to our spirit and sense of well-being as we hurtle into winter? Remember the snow that hung around for days, even weeks. The beast from the east that tore into your very bones? What did that do for your spirit and ability to maintain a positive outlook. As the winter days and ever long dark nights dragged on, did you, like me, find yourself sinking slightly, losing that spark that motivates you to fully engage in life. Or maybe you dropped further than that into despondency and even depression.
Although we can’t do much about the weather, the dreary days and dark nights, there is something we can do to maintain our sense of well-being, whatever is going on outside. Whether we are aware of it or not, we all have the ability to manage our inner world, to choose how we process and interpret the external world, and this can make a huge difference to how we experience life. We literally can create an internal world which is light and bright, or one which is dark and dreary; the difference is in how we use our mind, and it is not dependent on the weather or even on our circumstances. This ability to determine our own experience of life really came alive for me when I did what many people dream of doing. At the age of 55, and deciding that my ‘gap year’ was long overdue, I took a break from work, sold all of my belongings and set off to travel the world with my husband Ian. The ‘gap year’ actually became three years as we circled the globe, literally following the sun. For three years we did not have to deal with winter – when mid-autumn arrived in Europe we would take off to Australia in time to welcome spring, then back to Europe when the time was right. We just moved from autumn to spring, bypassing winter completely. The task of packing away the summer clothes, always previously an unwelcome necessity never happened, we lived in shorts and summer dresses (that was me not Ian!), neither of us even had a coat for three years.
So did permanent sunshine and light make me permanently happy and bright? You might be surprised to hear that it didn’t. Even wall to wall sunshine and complete freedom from the normal stresses of life combined was not a guarantee of happiness. Would’ve of thought! Now you are not alone if you believe that when all the external circumstances line up you will be happy. When you finally have the ideal partner, the ideal career, enough money, the ideal circumstances. But I would like to challenge that belief, because I discovered something different. Even with everything lined up, I discovered I could still make myself miserable, because happiness is determined in the mind, not in what is going on outside. It is our habitual thinking, the stories we tell ourselves and others, the meaning we attach to circumstances which really determines how we feel.
Of course, it is easier to be happy when the sun is shining, but it is not guaranteed. And for some people, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a real and limiting condition that really is determined by the lack of light and sunshine. But for most of us we have a choice. We can mentally resist what already is, the season and the weather, and cause ourselves extra suffering. Or, as we head into autumn and winter, we can choose where we focus our attention; on all the things we have to be grateful for, on the good things about winter, the cosy evenings curled up with a book, the log fire in the pub, the frosty, sparkly days, the very fact that we are alive.
I can’t guarantee the weather, but I can guarantee that if you choose to take control of your mind and choose to focus your attention on what is right and not what is wrong, you will notice a very different experience of life. Maybe winter doesn’t have to be so blue after all.