Why so S.A.D? The Happy Nordic and Seasonal Affective Disorder

Seasonal Affective Disorder, also known (appropriately) as SAD, is the condition in which people’s moods are dependent on the seasons. The most common outcome of SAD is feeling depressed during winter months, as the lack of sunlight leads to symptoms such as lethargy, over eating, and mental drainage. Although SAD is common throughout most locations whose latitudinal degrees reach higher numbers, Scandinavia seems to suffer from the highest rates of SAD globally.

When discussing Scandinavian winters, two words come to mind: Cold and Dark. It’s a very apt description. This past winter, Copenhagen’s winter solstice saw only 7 hours of sunlight, with the sun setting at around 3:30pm—and Copenhagen got off lucky. Parts of Northern Norway received absolutely no sunlight for the entire month of December! This alone is a depressing thought.

Why So S.A.D?

The winters in Scandinavia are often described as Cold and Dark. With minimal sunlight exposure during the winters, Scandinavians are more likely to suffer from SAD than most other countries.

Personally, I can attest to the gloomy feelings of the winters in Scandinavian. Even though we have some of the greatest holiday cheer and Hygge during this time, the overall atmosphere is rather downtrodden. Which brings about the question once more, “how are Scandinavians consistently ranked within the top 10 happiest countries in the world?”

My personal theory: The Summers are worth it!

As we enter spring here in Denmark, there has been a huge influx in life in the streets of Copenhagen. I tend to liken it to the Danes finally coming out of their hibernation with the first taste of the sun. Sure it is by no means beach weather just yet, but the smiles and energy shared amongst the people always makes it feel as though it’s already July.

All the dark winters are balanced out by the bright summers. Last June, Copenhagen’s summer solstice gave us over 17.5 hours of sunlight, with the sun only beginning to set at around 10pm! If you work a standard 9-5, imagine what you can do with the rest of your day. In my opinion, Copenhagen during the summer borrows the title of “the city that never sleeps.”


During the Scandinavian summers, you are bound to see countless people outside enjoying the weather. Public parks become overrun with Summer spirits! (image source)

Whenever people ask me whether I’m a morning or night person, I always answer, “I’m just a daylight person.” It tends to be met as joke, but honestly, that’s how I function. If it’s dark, I feel as if my brain begins to work at a lesser capacity and I just want to nap—a sentiment that is shared by many of my Danish compatriots. So obviously, I chose the wrong place to spend my winters. But the summer breathes a life into me that is almost addictive, and I believe it is this personal trait shared by many other Danes that helps us receive such a high happiness ranking (in addition to all of our other social benefits).

Yet this thought process also gives an interesting insight into the Scandinavian mindset—our ability to compromise and rationalize. We have learned that for every bad time, there will be a good one, and for every winter, there is always a summer. The enjoyment of the good is therefore increased by reflection on the bad. It’s the realistic view of life that everything can’t be good. Of course that doesn’t mean that life shouldn’t be good, it’s very important for the Scandinavians to have a well balanced work life throughout the whole year, no matter what the seasons bring, (check out Alexander Kjerulf’s book Happy Hour is 9 to 5 for insight into Scandinavian work life and Arbejdsglaede). It does however mean that Scandinavians have a predisposition of being open to compromises, something that has driven our culture to what it is today. We understand that we may at times have to yield, in order to benefit at a different point. This mentality promotes collaborative societies, where we all know we need to take into consideration others’ needs in order for our own to also be met.

So, even though Scandinavians may suffer through winters and feel SAD effects, we know that in the end, the sun is coming.

Philip Trampe
14 Apr 2014

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