A recent Gallup World Poll, conducted in 155 countries over four years, ranked the happiest nations on Earth. Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden topped the list. It’s a surprising stat, given how we like to think of Scandinavians as a brooding sort, fattening themselves on pickled fish and root vegetables in order to spend long, dark months watching Ingmar Bergman films.
I’m not asserting folks in Stockholm are happy because of freezing temperatures—they are not deranged hostages in love with their terrorist climate. The endorphins coursing through their brains probably have more to do with the joys of socialism, and ABBA. But those Europeans (and Canadians, No. 8 on the happy list) living above the 56th parallel have found joy in spite of winter.
Me? I’m more than one thousand miles farther south from the North Pole than any Swede, yet I gleefully endure winter as much as the Scandos do. My coworkers and loved ones in Florida think I’m nuts. I am the silly little Darkling Thrush of Thomas Hardy’s poem, naïvely “in a full-hearted evensong / Of joy illimited” as the landscape turns “spectre-gray” and “desolate.” I am not drunk on Christkindlmarket glühwein. Reasons abound to celebrate and not merely suffer. Though it should be noted I don’t own a car.
In winter, there is no seeing the disgusting feet of flip-flopped strangers. No sweating at resting heart rates. No baking sidewalks covered with melting spit; no subway cars crammed with dripping pits. Summer rots and reeks. In winter, mosquitoes, bees and ants are locked under hardened ground; allergies hibernate.
Layers of clothing combat low temperatures, with style. We drape ourselves in wool and leather, sweaters, boots and gloves. The fashion industry will stand behind me in defending these items over mandals, short-shorts and tanks. What do you even do with socks when wearing shorts? Hike ’em high or crush them against your ugly sneakers? Regardless, when it’s cold, you can warm yourself. When it’s hot, you cook.
Do I really need to convince the readers of a culture rag that cozy indoor concerts, Sweeps Week, opera, the height of the literary season and Oscar contenders trump street festivals loaded with tribute bands, reruns, Ravinia pops, beach reads and Michael Bay? Winter sports give us March Madness and bowls; the Bears, Bulls and Blackhawks. Beats watching the Cubs choke away another season, inning by agonizing inning.
Can we not thank the cold for our architecture and skyline? Buildings here huddle together, insulated in stone and hunched high into the clouds to keep daily living warm and convenient. Southern cities lazily sprawl.
Pity those with no reason to sip hot tea, toddies and cocoa. Let the caffeinated wind put a spring (poor choice of words, perhaps) in your step. Savor a break from the narcotic humidity. At the very least, embrace both summer and winter—equate them. After all, Chicagoans have at least one reason to be happier than Scandinavians: We’ve never had to eat lutefisk.