“Everything hurts and I’m dying.”

It’s no secret that January can be a struggle. Between the onslaught of new projects, the 4 p.m. sunsets, and the post-holiday blues, there are plenty of reasons to feel weighed down. But, is there any science to the sadness? What if there were a formula to officially determine why we’re all feeling like Kuzco in the first scene of The Emperor’s New Groove?

Kuzco from The Emperor's New Groove sits on a rock and cries.

Well, as it turns out, there is! Maybe.

In 2005, former British travel company, Sky Travel, partnered with psychologist Cliff Arnall to devise a formula that would mathematically determine the most depressing day of the year. The result was Blue Monday: supposedly, the certified summit of our winter woes.

To make his calculation, Arnall considered factors like weather conditions, the average level of debt, time since Christmas, time since failing our New Year’s resolutions (ouch), and low levels of motivation. His formula was pretty complicated:

Gif of Winona Ryder appearing comically confused with math equations drawn around her.

A method to the madness.

For my math people: W = weather, d = debt, D = monthly salary, T = time since Christmas, Q = time since failing our New Year’s resolutions, M = low levels of motivation, and Na = the need to take action.

For those of you who just skipped over the last paragraph because it gave you flashbacks to your high school precalculus class: that big fancy formula supposedly proved the saddest day of the year falls on the third Monday in January.

So, that’s it, right? The third Monday in January is scientifically the most depressing. Now you have the perfect excuse to spend it lying in bed, binge-watching the new season of You.

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple.

Despite being created by a certified psychologist, Blue Monday has been the subject of heavy criticism for years. For one, Arnall failed to define units in his calculations. Sure, in the equation, “M” stands for low motivational levels, but how do you measure that? You can’t pull out a scale and determine your motivation weighs, say, six kilograms. (I mean unless you want people to look at you like you’ve got three heads.)

Gif of Cardi B raising her eyebrows at the camera in a comically judgy way.

But why the motive?

Also, it’s important to keep in mind that there was a clear purpose behind Blue Monday’s creation. Remember how Arnall partnered with a travel company? Yeah. Well, at the time, Sky Travel was looking for a way to sell more plane tickets to warm destinations. Although it could have easily copied its competitors and run a TV ad featuring Betty White and the Jonas Brothers, the British agency chose a more devious marketing technique. It figured that if it could appeal to the public’s inherent trust in science, it could more easily manipulate them to go on a warm vacation.

In other words, Blue Monday was a cleverly designed publicity stunt. Sky Travel created the “most depressing day of the year” so that it could swoop in and say, “Hey! Science says things are looking pretty gloomy right now. Why not visit Hawaii?”

Gif of Morgan Freeman wagging his finger at someone off-camera while saying, "You sneaky thing, you!"

And no, you’re not the only one.

But it doesn’t stop there. While there doesn’t appear to be any supported proof of Blue Monday, the general blah feeling that runs rampant this time of year is far from a delusion. Seasonal Affective Disorder (or, as it’s suitably abbreviated, SAD) is a kind of depression that occurs during a specific time of year: usually, the cold season. It’s quite common, as well; the Canadian Mental Health Association estimated in 2013 that around two to three per cent of Canadians will experience some form of the disorder within their lifetime.

Because it’s effectively the same illness, SAD has many of the same symptoms as depression. Among others, these include irritability, trouble concentrating, sleep problems, and a general loss of interest in both work and hobbies.

Interestingly, it’s believed that SAD is triggered by changes in the amount of sunlight we get. The late sunrises and early sunsets that define the winter months mean that, during this season, most people receive very limited exposure to UV rays. A decrease in daylight can have very real effects on the body — vitamin D deficiency, a disturbed sleep cycle, and impaired brain function, to name a few.

So, yeah. The January blues aren’t all in your head. Or, they are, but there’s research behind them; they aren’t just your brain scrambling to adjust from watching Hallmark movies all day to having to do actual work again.

The solution? Get more sunlight! If it’s too cold to go outside, try doing your homework near a window, so you can soak up those rays without freezing your pants off.

a bright yellow smiley face bounces on a pastel background.

Alternatively, you could try simulated sunlight. One of the most popular treatments for SAD is light therapy, which involves sitting next to a special light box for around 30 minutes per day. The light box targets the symptoms of SAD by emitting artificial UV rays.

In short, there is no “saddest day of the year.” There is, however, some backing to the gloominess you may be feeling throughout the winter season overall.

But, keep your head up. While SAD is certainly nothing to laugh about, one of its defining features is that it is temporary. The winter solstice happened on Dec. 21, 2019. That means every day, the sun is shining for a little longer. And, hopefully, you’re feeling a little happier too.

Here’s to a Monday that’s not so blue.


Feeling weighed down? Check out our upcoming workshop on mental health in the digital age.

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