Moods and Mindsets

Kari Leibowitz describes her recent research experience in Tromsø, Norway for The Atlantic. It’s a tiny island 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle with about 70,000 inhabitants. It experiences extreme darkness for most of the year, commonly called the Polar Night or the “dark time” (though Leibowitz’ friend in the North, Fern, preferred to say, more favorably, the “Blue Time”). This made it a reasonable place to study seasonal affective disorder and to explore the dynamic relationship between one’s environment and one’s emotional well-being.

Leibowitz discovered the importance of mindsets, summoning Carol Dweck’s distinction between fixed and growth mindsets as a paradigmatic example for elucidating the Norwegian way of coping with enduring winter. Whereas Leibowitz’ cultural background (New Jersey) gave her an unfavorable bias toward winter (I can relate, having grown up there as well), Norway establishes in its citizens a relatively positive comportment to this “dark” season. “Winter is coming” would for them be a call for celebration, not a death knell.

In other words, they go into winter with positive expectations and so are more inclined to come out of it with positive experiences. The same correlative link is there for negative expectations and negative experiences. This isn’t to say that one can simply will a positive mindset, though that is the prevailing argument of our zeitgeist, that we have personal control over our individual outlook.

Martin Heidegger can offer us an interesting insight here. Much of his Being and Time undermines our typical assumptions about subjectivity as the fundamental ontological condition. In this Norway case, Leibowitz presumes that people are in control of their mindsets, ignoring that their mindsets emerge against the predetermined background of a Norwegian mood, which discloses the possible mindsets available to individual everyday comportment. One’s way of being in Norway, which Leibowitz admires as though the Norwegian citizens are transcending a more universally normal way of being, is inclined to privilege winter. Born into this environment, and so into this default/preset mood, an individual would align with “the one” and follow suit.

Leibowitz seems to think she’s discovered something about individual mindsets, which makes sense in a universal mood that encourages personal subjectivity as the fundamental grounding of existence. But if we look at her work through Heidegger, we conclude instead that what she’s discovered is something “true” about Norway’s mood. It is the norms of those particular people within that particular situation which are magnified, not the will of any of its citizens.

Ontologically mood is a primordial kind of being for Dasein, in which Dasein is disclosed to itself prior to all cognition and volition, and beyond their range of disclosure.

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