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Why ‘Blue Monday’ should have you seeing red

There seems to be a dispute this year about the date of “Blue Monday,” which is supposed to be the most depressing day of the year. Some say it was last Monday. Others claim it’s today.

Not that it matters. For as British psychiatrist and science writer Dr. Ben Goldacre noted on Saturday in his “Bad Science” column in the Guardian newspaper, the whole concept behind Blue Monday is bunk.

Except he used another word that begins with “B” — one I’m not sure I’d get past my MinnPost editors.

Blue Monday has become an annual media story, one whose “truth” has become ingrained in the public consciousness. But it’s a fake event, concocted by a British travel agency several years ago to encourage people to book vacations in the dead of winter.

So, yes, let’s embrace Blue Monday today — but only for the lesson it teaches us. It shows just how gullible we can be when we’re pitched an idea that’s wrapped in scientific-sounding mumbo-jumbo and then becomes widely disseminated through the media year after year.

A fake formula
This particular “part of the canon of pseudoscientific media myth,” as Goldacre puts it, is built on a rather formidable-looking mathematical formula developed by a British psychologist and part-time university instructor in direct response to the travel agency’s PR campaign. The psychologist was so pleased with the publicity (and money) he received, he’s gone on to develop other formulas, including one for how to spend the “perfect” long vacation weekend (for a travel agency again, apparently) and another for the “happiest day of the year” (for an ice-cream company — the “happiest” day is in June, at the start of Britain’s prime ice-cream-eating season).

Here’s his Blue Monday formula:

[W + (D-d)] x TQ

         MNa

In the formula, W = weather; D = ability to pay (Christmas bills, I guess); d = debt; T = time since Christmas; Q = time since failing our new year’s resolutions; M = low motivational levels; and Na = the feeling of a need to take action.

(Is anybody else a little taken aback by seeing our state’s initials in a formula for the most depressing day of the year?)

Of course, as any mathematically minded (or clear-thinking) MinnPost reader will quickly note, the formula makes absolutely no sense. (Goldacre rips it apart here.)

‘Tis not the season
But, more to the point, there’s no good evidence — seasonal affective disorder sufferers aside — that we’re more miserable in January than at any other time of the year. Writes Goldacre:

I reviewed the evidence from more than 30 studies over 130 years on the subject last year. Some find more suicide in spring and early summer, some in spring and autumn, some in summer only, some find no pattern at all.
Many have sampled representative individuals from a population and followed their mood over a year, finding: more misery in summer, more in spring, more in winter, or no peak at all.
Antidepressant prescriptions peak in spring, or in February, May and October. [Doctor] consultations for depression peak in May-June, and November-January. Admissions for depression peak in autumn, or spring and summer, while eight studies found no variation.
So Blue Monday does not put a catchy name on a simple human truth. It only really shows us how easy it is to take an idea that people think they already know, and then sell it back to them. Even if it’s false.

Now, that’s something that should make all of us feel blue.

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