Eliza Lloyd ’22, Caroline Kaicher ’22, and Rory O’Brien ’22: How limited daylight during Iceland’s winters affects public activity, culture, and wellness

Back to Alumni Memorial Scholars News & Updates

To investigate how public activity is impacted by limited daylight, we took photos in multiple public spaces around Reykjavik at different times of day and made a photobook to document our findings. In general, we found that public activity was extremely low in the morning until the sun started to rise, and sharply increased with the daylight. This was surprising to us because the streets in a typical American city are usually bustling between 8 and 10 a.m., while there were almost no people outside in Reykjavik during this time. Public activity usually peaked around mid- to late-afternoon, when the daylight was the brightest, but the sharp contrast in activity between light and dark that we saw in the morning was not present at sundown; the streets were still filled with people once the sun set. 

In addition to photographing activity in public spaces, we interviewed Icelandic residents about their experiences with the lack of daylight in the winter. The residents spanned a wide age range and included tour guides, shop keepers, and university professors. The clear trend emerged that Icelanders generally experience lower energy and more negative mood during the winter compared to the summer, with many residents remarking that they are happier and more lively in the summer months. Multiple people that we interviewed mentioned feeling more depressed during the winter, including Diogo, a worker at the Fontana Wellness Center in his mid-20s. Without prompting, he mentioned that seasonal depression is common among friends and coworkers, saying, “Everyone notices it, everyone feels it.”

A bookstore worker of similar age summarized his perception of the general mood during Icelandic winters in a simple, yet profound way: “I can describe it in one word: sadness… Sadness and drinking.”

The extreme decrease in daylight seems to affect residents in more areas of life than just mood — some interviewees reported increases in eating and sleep, with one shopkeeper referring to the winter as like a state of “hibernation.” In contrast, many reported wanting to be outside all day during the summer and not wanting to go to sleep.

According to Professor Þórhildur (Thora) Halldórsdóttir at Reykjavik University, there is almost never a stable external cue in Iceland to signal when certain natural activities, like sleeping and eating, should be done. Because of this, her children are constantly asking her when they are allowed to wake up, suggesting that the large fluctuation in daylight throughout the year inhibits the formation of regular sleeping/eating schedules.

Multiple residents with whom we spoke had not lived in Iceland for their entire lives, making these people’s experiences specifically interesting, because they have the ability to compare their life in Iceland to that of another country with less drastic fluctuations in daylight throughout the year. They reported that the transition was “really hard” and “a big contrast,” with one middle-aged jewelry shop worker saying that it is “pretty damn hard being here in the winter,” and that she will not spend another winter in Iceland, because it is too difficult for her.

Icelandic immigrants reported similar changes as other residents, such as increases in sleep, eating, and lethargy, but they seemed to take more measures to combat these effects. One worker, who had emigrated from the United States and lived in Iceland for five years, emphasized the importance of “taking care of yourself” by getting enough sleep, taking vitamin D, and using supplemental light, such as a light box or an alarm clock with a light. While life-long Icelanders also reported using interventions like vitamin D supplements and cod liver oil, immigrants tended to be more likely to use multiple and be more outspoken about their use.

Another way that Icelanders try to counteract the adverse effects of limited daylight in the winter is to decorate with Christmas lights, but much more intensely than what we have experienced in the United States. It felt like Christmas lights were everywhere we looked: public spaces, apartment windows, and lining trees. We learned that the Christmas lights are kept up for an extended length of time, usually from November to January or even longer. One worker we spoke with referred to this as a “celebration of light in the ‘dark’ times,” and our tour guide made a point to tell us, “In the darkest hours, we compensate with a lot of lights.” They seemed to be referring to the dark both literally and figuratively, reflecting the negative emotional impact that the physical darkness has and how light is used to brighten up the mood of winter days.

Icelanders also use New Year’s Eve as a chance to celebrate with light — fireworks are legal for anyone on this holiday and can be seen all over the city of Reykjavik in every direction. Other ways that residents try to counteract the effects of the lack of daylight include vacationing to warm and sunny locations, socialization, and physical activity. Bars and dancing are an important part of social life in the winter, and exercise such as running is very popular. One person told us that the only reason she gets up in the morning is because she trains with other runners. Additionally, a flea market vendor mentioned that creating pieces for her shop helps keep her mood up during the winter, suggesting that creativity could help combat the negative effects of the dark.

An important trend that we noticed throughout our interviews was that there seem to be age-related differences in how Icelanders experience the lack of daylight during the winter. While younger residents tended to perceive a greater negative impact on their lives and those of their friends/coworkers in terms of mood and energy, older residents reported less disruption to their lives. The most significant outlier was our tour guide Höskuldur “Hershey” Frímannsson, who is in his 70s and has lived in Iceland for his whole life. Hershey did not think his mood is different between summer and winter and does not often talk about the impact of changes in daylight with people around him. He emphasized the positive parts of winter, including the gradual transition between the seasons, a long sunrise that gives more hours of light, and the moon's reflection off of the snow. While we were told that tour guides in Iceland are notoriously positive, other older residents had similar perspectives. A 53 year-old taxi driver named Marinó definitely felt more of an impact than Hershey but still said that he does not feel like his behavior/schedule changes in the winter and does not use any intervention methods. A flea market vendor in her 70s also did not feel a difference between summer and winter, saying that she is always low energy no matter the season (attributed to her old age) and always wakes up at the same time without an alarm clock.

A possible explanation for the age-related differences that we observed is that social media allows young people to make connections outside of their real-life social circles, possibly making them more conscious of the difference in daylight compared to other places and thus magnifying their perceptions of the negative impacts. On the bus ride during our tour, Hershey remarked that “we are nothing but comparing creatures… we are always comparing things,” suggesting that the change between seasons is felt more harshly if you are always comparing it to something different.

Cultural factors also probably play a role: professors at Reykjavik University discussed how older generations tend to have a “let's just get through it” attitude, while younger generations are more “in tune with their emotions” and accepting of mental health issues like seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Additionally, the professors discussed that technology emits light that suppresses melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep. Sleep problems could possibly be increased in adolescents because of screen use at night, exacerbating feelings of decreased energy in the winter.

Our meeting with professors at Reykjavik University (RU) gave us important insights into the biological basis behind our interview findings and how certain interventions can be used to combat fatigue and depression related to changes in daylight. We met with Drs. Birna Baldursdóttir, Heiðdís B. Valdimarsdóttir, and Þórhildur Halldórsdóttir (Thora), who teach in the psychology department at RU and study a wide range of topics, including psychological and biological evaluation of cancer patients, mental health disorders in adolescents, and the use of bright white light (BWL) therapy to combat circadian rhythm disruption. In our discussion about the effects of limited daylight in the winter on Icelandic residents, Dr. Valdimarsdóttir brought a very interesting perspective: she believes that Icelanders must have some sort of genetic difference that allows them to adapt to the drastic fluctuations in light levels because otherwise, they would be expected to experience extreme negative mental and physical effects due to circadian rhythm disruption.

Although the impacts on mood and energy are not often as life-altering as Dr. Valdimarsdóttir says they could be, it is still important to research possible interventions. The three professors have previously shown the positive impact of BWL therapy on mental health, sleep, and depressive symptoms in RU students. BWL therapy is the use of a circadian stimulating light in the morning to simulate sunlight and activate hormones that help wake you up. They are also currently working on a study in schools with adolescents, turning on a circadian stimulating light around 8:30 a.m. and gradually increasing the light intensity throughout the day. Trends show that depressive symptoms increase in months where sunlight is the least, so their hypothesis is that students in rooms with light intervention will perform better on cognitive tasks and have less depressive symptoms. 

It is an unavoidable fact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had significant impacts on the factors on which we focused our project, both in the lives of Icelanders and in academic research. For example, many of the ways that Icelandic residents told us they cope with the dark winters, like traveling to somewhere warm and going out to bars with friends, have been off-limits during the pandemic, making winters especially difficult. Additionally, like many other countries, Iceland has seen its tourism greatly impacted. Tourism is the biggest industry in Iceland, peaking in the summer months but also popular in the winter because of the Northern Lights. Icelanders are very grateful for tourists because they helped pull the country out of the 2008 economic crisis, but tourism dropped drastically at the start of the pandemic. Even now, there is a huge need for tour guides because most of them were forced to get different jobs while tourism was shut down, demonstrating the significant economic hardship that COVID-19 has caused for Iceland and its residents. 

COVID-19 is and will continue to be an important factor that the professors we interviewed must consider in all of their research, as depressive symptoms and mental wellbeing of adolescents in Iceland have worsened during the pandemic. COVID-19 likely plays a role in their findings of greater incidence of SAD in young people, with COVID being a confounding factor in the effects of darkness on wellbeing. Additionally, we discussed with the professors about how light and depression can affect the immune system. BWL therapy has been found to improve the activity of the pro-inflammatory cytokine IL-6 in the bone marrow of transplant patients, linking circadian rhythm regulation with positive immune system function. Dr. Valdimarsdóttir has also found that important immune system components are impacted by mood, and that depression is related to proinflammatory immune markers. According to the professors, these connections mean that people with depression could be more prone to getting sick, which has become increasingly relevant during the pandemic. It is possible that circadian rhythm disruption leading to SAD, which has disproportionately impacted young people during the pandemic, could increase a person's susceptibility to COVID-19. These questions require further research, but are important to consider when thinking about the unique role that limited daylight plays in the wellbeing of Icelandic residents.

Through our photo documentation, the anecdotal experiences of Icelandic residents, and our conversations with RU professors about their research, we have learned that the 20 hours of darkness during Icelandic winters affects public activity, culture, and wellness in profound ways. The limited daylight disrupts key indicators of wellbeing such as energy, sleep, and mood, in both life-long Icelandic residents and immigrants. However, Icelanders are extremely resilient - they often emphasized ways that they counteract these negative aspects of the winter, with a prevailing narrative of bringing hope and happiness to the dark times by creating their own light. 

The three of us at Old Harbour, one of the locations we took our photo series at. From left to right, Caroline, Rory, and Eliza.

A photo series from Skólavörðustígur Street (aka Rainbow Street), one of the locations in downtown Reykjavik that we used to document public activity throughout the day. From top to bottom: 9:30am, 11:00am, 12:30pm.

A child holding sparklers on New Years Eve, a night full of light everywhere we looked.

The Reykjavik University researchers that we interviewed. From left to right: Dr. Þórhildur Halldórsdóttir (Thora), Dr. Heiðdís B. Valdimarsdóttir, and Dr. Birna Baldursdóttir.