(CNN) — As if we needed more reasons to reflect on the daily difficulties of life, this January 17 is “Blue Monday”, the third Monday in January, which is said to be the most depressing day of the year.
But it is?
Research hasn’t shown that there is one day more depressing than all the others, but it’s actually a PR stunt that has unfortunately become entrenched in modern culture.
Every January, blogs share their tips on how people can save themselves from the dark, businesses take the opportunity to promote their feel-good products and services, and social media does the same.
The origin of a health myth
Blue Monday began with a press release.
In 2005, the now-defunct UK television channel Sky Travel sent journalists an exciting promotional announcement that, with the help of a psychologist, they had calculated the most miserable day of the year.
They apparently solved it with a complex formula developed by British psychologist Cliff Arnall, who considered factors such as the weather to devise a person’s lowest point.
The formula was meant to analyze when people booked vacations, assuming that people were more likely to buy a ticket to paradise when they were feeling down. Arnall was asked to come up with the best day to book a vacation trip, so he thought about the reasons why people would want to take a vacation, and thus the gloomiest day of the year was born.
“In general, there is more sadness in the winter, and in January it is not uncommon for people to have general sadness,” said Dr. Ravi Shah, a psychiatrist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center. “So instead of calling out a specific day, I think the more interesting question is whether winter affects our moods.”
Some of the fuel fueling the Blue Monday fire could also be the phenomenon that is based on research from Japan. In 2009, the proportion of suicides on Mondays among Japanese men was significantly higher than on other days of the week, especially for those in the “working age” category, suggesting that the structure of the workweek and economic struggles they were the culprits.
Blue Monday is not scientifically sound
Arnall’s formula looks good: [W + (Dd)] xTQ/MxNA].
But upon closer inspection, the variables involved are subjective and clearly unscientific. W, for example, stands for weather. D is debt and d is monthly salary. T means time since Christmas and Q is time since you gave up your New Year’s resolution.
None of the factors you included can be measured or compared with the same units. The formula cannot be adequately evaluated or verified. For example, there is no way to measure the average number of days since people missed their New Year’s resolution. And January weather varies among different states, countries, and continents. In short, it has no scientific merit.
“I had no idea it would gain the popularity it has,” Arnall told CNN. “I guess a lot of people recognize it for themselves.”
Arnall has also claimed to campaign against his own idea of Blue Monday as part of the “activist group” Stop Blue Monday. But that group, as it turned out, was also a marketing campaign, this time for winter tourism in the Canary Islands.
Now, he tells CNN that he would do it again.
“I don’t regret it at all,” he said, adding that he has “used the media” on several occasions with the intention of starting conversations about psychology.
“My problem with academic psychology and peer-reviewed journals… they don’t really make much of a difference to normal people,” added Arnall, who was paid £1,200 (just over $1,640 at current exchange rates) to create the Blue Monday.
However, that is not a popular opinion in the profession.
“This is not the right way to raise awareness,” said Antonis Kousoulis, director of the UK Mental Health Foundation. “By saying that this day is the most depressing day of the year, without any evidence, we are trivializing how serious depression can be.”
“Mental health is the biggest health challenge of our generation,” he added. “Trivializing it is completely unacceptable.”
“Depression is not a one-day phenomenon,” Shah said. “Depression is a clinical syndrome that has to be at least two weeks, most of the day, most days.”
Yet the winter blues are real
Critics of the concept of a “Blue Monday” have argued that attributing clinical depression to external causes such as the number of days since Christmas can negatively affect sufferers by suggesting that their condition could be resolved by something as easy as booking a few vacation on a sunny beach.
What is real is the winter blues, better known clinically as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD. It is a form of depression that people usually experience during the fall and winter months when there is less sunlight. The most difficult months for people with SAD in the United States tend to be January and February, but this improves with the arrival of spring.
Psychology Today reported that SAD is estimated to affect 10 million Americans, and another 10% to 20% may have mild symptoms. For the 5% of adults who experience SAD, about 40% of the year they have symptoms that can be overwhelming and interfere with daily life.
The condition has been linked to a biochemical imbalance in the brain caused by shorter daylight hours and less sunlight in winter. As the seasons change, people experience a shift in their internal biological clock, or circadian rhythm, which can cause them to be out of sync with their regular schedule.
Common symptoms of SAD include fatigue despite how much sleep a person gets and weight gain associated with overeating and carbohydrate cravings, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
Other signs include feelings of sadness, loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, trouble concentrating or making decisions, and thoughts of death or suicide, and even suicide attempts.
SAD can start at any age, but it usually begins between the ages of 18 and 30 and is more common in women than men.
How to combat seasonal affective disorder
According to Dr. Shah, the easiest way to start taking action against SAD is to focus on light exposure. “If you can’t get natural sunlight, buy a light box,” he said.
Light therapy involves sitting in front of a light therapy box that emits very bright light for a minimum of 20 minutes per day. Most people see improvements from this method within a week or two of starting treatment.
In anticipation of the return of symptoms in late fall, some people start light therapy in early fall to prevent them.
Increased exposure to sunlight can also help improve symptoms. People prone to symptoms may want to spend more time outdoors or set up a sitting area in their home that is exposed to a window during the day. Antidepressants and talk therapy are also effective in treating SAD.
Taking comprehensive care of your health can also help: exercising regularly, eating right, getting enough sleep when you can, and staying connected with family and friends. Also talk to your doctor, as SAD can be a manageable condition with the correct diagnosis and treatment.
“If you stay physically, mentally and socially active and use a light box, that will help a lot,” Shah said.
Activated by a Google Home or Amazon Alexa device, smart light bulbs can help you fall asleep or wake up by slowly brightening or dimming. Weighted blankets have been beneficial for people struggling with insomnia and anxiety.
The Blue Monday concept was a relatable idea at best and a travel marketing scheme that probably didn’t work. But why stop there? Later, Arnall devised a formula to determine the happiest day of the year, sponsored by an ice cream company, despite the fact that many find comfort in this gift when they are less happy.
So if you’re feeling good on Blue Monday, don’t anticipate that the day will have an imminent fate. If you have problems with the TAE, you should know that there is help available for you.
Article originally published on January 18, 2021.
— CNN’s Allen Kim contributed to this report.