On OpenLearnLive a couple of years back we had a quick look at Blue Monday:
Today is Blue Monday, a now fixed point of the calendar when marketing people claim that it's the most miserable day of the year, and scientists tut and tell them not to be so silly.
However, a marketing meme that is a resilient as Blue Monday is probably deserving of a little more inspection than that. First, obviously, the idea that the third Monday in January is more profoundly depressing than the 364 other days is rubbish, and Claudia Hammond happily kicked it to pieces for BBC Future:
The idea began when a travel company put out a press release in 2005 announcing that a psychologist called Dr Cliff Arnall had discovered the equation that tells us the most dismal day of the year. The equation he formulated took into account the weather, the amount of debt a person has after Christmas and their ability to pay it off on payday, the time elapsed since Christmas, levels of motivation and the need to take action, and how long it was since people had broken New Year’s resolutions. The countries where Blue Monday applies aren’t specified.
The equation still appears on his website, but what you cannot find is any published data to back it up. To be fair, Arnall himself has admitted that the equation is not particularly helpful. A lack of data is not surprising if you think about the amount of work that would be involved in a study like this. You would have to take a large group of people and measure each of these factors every day of the year. You would then need to assess the relative contributions of each factor in the equation to feeling a bit low. An equation might look good, but any psychologist doing research will tell you that unfortunately neither human emotions nor behaviour can be predicted by neat equations.
But that doesn’t mean we lack any information about seasonal variations, mood swings and its deleterious effects. Research on suicide does reveal seasonal fluctuations, though it is not the cold, bleak months of winter that presage the despair associated with suicide. A study conducted in twenty different countries found that the time of year with the highest suicide rates are the more promising seasons of spring and early summer. Another study, which tracked suicides in the United States between 1971 and 2000 reached similar findings.
So, it's a bit of fluff with no basis in reality. Still, though, it gets trotted out every year. You can understand why editors, desperate to fill newspapers and breakfast TV shows during a lean period welcome something that will help fill the yawning chasm of the January news agenda; and you might think its harmless enough.
Dean Burnett thinks otherwise, because it trivialises something quite serious:
And on a serious note, I don't agree with anything which implies that depression is just a fleeting thing that can be dismissed so trivially. Genuine clinical depression is a very serious disorder, and people who experience it have a hard enough time being taken seriously as it is, without puff pieces like this implying it's something everyone goes through with inexplicable regularity.
I've often said there should be a change in the terminology. The fact that you can be "depressed" but not have "depression" makes it too easy to dismiss the concerns of clinical sufferers. Saying depression sufferers shouldn't complain because you've been miserable and got over it is a bit like dismissing the needs of an amputee on the grounds that you once had a paper-cut which healed on its own.
If you do feel genuinely depressed, there are a number of ways that you can be helped. But for the record, nonsensical equations are not one of them.
And as well as using mental health as fodder for media flim-flam, Dr Andrew Bell points out that passing off out-of-thin-air equations as science undervalues science as a whole:
First, stories like this devalue real evidence: real findings about the world that actually do matter to people. Hundreds of researchers across the world are working to find things out that will better society. When they find things out that are important, we need to know about it, and we can’t do that if it is buried by stories about chocolate helping you lose weight (it doesn’t).
Second, stories like this make the news media less valuable. When we no longer see value in the news as a source of reliable information, what does it provide? A source of entertainment perhaps, but I think we should be striving for more than that.
And third, when we live in a world where real evidence is undervalued, and the aim of the media is to provide for the whims of the masses rather than actual information, it becomes dangerous. When a headline suggests that one in five Muslims support violent Jihadis (they don’t), or that climate change is a myth (it isn’t), people who read these are affected – presence in even the least reputable newspaper implies a veneer of truth, so readers’ beliefs may change or be hardened, or readers may feel offended, or ostracised. And that is bad for the world when the story is, in fact, junk, and its conclusions can lead to bad personal and policy decisions.
Not everyone is quite so worried about Blue Monday's effects. John Kinderman acknowledges that it's baloney, but suggests there's nothing wrong with a bit of baloney every now and then:
Research, including research conducted at the University of Liverpool, has emphasised how our mental health is dependent on the events that happen in our lives , our social circumstances , and how we make sense of the world . It equally seems clear that our definitions of ‘clinical conditions’ are reflections of temporary social norms .
So while this equation is scientific nonsense – you’re not really particularly likely to feel miserable today – it does point out something that I think is important and true. Our mental health depends on a very wide range of factors that interact and change, and contribute in complex ways to our emotional well-being. I think (while, again, this equation must only be seen as a piece of fun) it’s probably quite good to consider all the factors that impact on our well-being and think of what we can do about them.
The underlying idea that a January Monday would be miserable one is based, in part, on picking the worst day of the week in the worst month of the year. But science isn't entirely sure that Mondays are all that miserable in themselves. Back in 1985, three studies were conducted that concluded people are just as capable of having a Blue Tuesday, Blue Wednesday or even a Blue Thursday:
Although [subjects] thought that their mood was lowest on Monday, mood measures collected on a daily basis did not support the belief. Monday's mood was not different than mood on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, but positive mood was higher and negative mood was lower on the weekend; measures of depressed mood did not vary by day of the week.
So, even the idea that Mondays are a drag might be misplaced. Except, that is, for one area of human endeavour - in financial markets. There's some evidence that money invested in fast-turnaround markets on Mondays generates lower returns than other days of the week, and research by Glenn Pettengill suggests that on a Monday, traders might be less ebullient and willing to take risks than on other days:
The “Blue Monday” hypothesis, states that the weekday effect results from shifts in investor portfolios resulting from variations in investor optimism across the week.
Consistent with the “Blue Monday” hypothesis, Monday's participants [in a simulation] invested a significantly lower proportion of their wealth in the securities with the highest level of risk and a significantly higher proportion of their wealth in Treasury-bills.
Ultimately, there's just one Blue Monday that counts. And I'm quite sure you'll tell me how I should feel today.