Briefing

What is Blue Monday?

The most depressing day of the year might not be all it's been made out to be

Rumor has it that the most depressing day of the year, known as Blue Monday, occurs on the third Monday in January. Is the world actually experiencing depression simultaneously, or is it pseudoscience used to prey on consumers dealing with the 'winter blues'? Here's everything you need to know:

What is Blue Monday?

Blue Monday is a concept conceived by psychologist Cliff Arnall in 2005. The now-defunct U.K. travel company Sky Travel hired Arnall to help figure out when people are most likely to book vacations. Arnall, working as a part-time tutor at Cardiff University's Centre for Lifelong Learning at the time, determined that people are likely to travel when they're feeling down. Hence, he set out to calculate the most depressing day of the year. He devised a formula that consists of seven variables: the weather, debt, monthly salary, time elapsed since Christmas and failed New Year's resolutions, motivational levels, and the need to take action. 

Sky Travel circulated a press release for the first Blue Monday, Jan. 24, 2005, encouraging people to hop on their winter travel deals to beat the blues, and the concept took on a life of its own. Since then, various companies have used Blue Monday as part of their PR campaigns. While many critics have questioned the scientific accuracy of Blue Monday, the concept has evolved into a way to label the dark days of January and the gloomy mood that seems to linger after the holidays are over.

When is Blue Monday 2023?

Based on Arnall's formula, Blue Monday falls every year on the third Monday of January. That will make the supposed most depressing day of 2023 Monday, Jan. 16, or Martin Luther King Jr. Day if you're in the United States. According to the formula, this will be the day when people are most likely to be depressed due to the bleak winter weather, post-holiday season blues, and guilt over abandoning New Year's resolutions. 

Is it really the most depressing day of the year?

Probably, not. The concept has been debunked as pseudoscience, and some experts say it creates more harm than good. Arnall has even taken to speaking out against the idea in the years since he started it. He went as far as to claim to be part of an "activist group" called Stop Blue Monday. However, that turned out to be another PR campaign with Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Holidays for winter vacations in the Canary Islands. 

A 2021 report by CNN pointed out that though "Arnall's formula looks the part," it "can't be adequately assessed or verified." None of the variables he included in his formula can be measured against each other using the same units. 

"For example, there's no way to measure the average number of days since people slipped up on their New Year's resolution. And January's weather varies among different states, countries, and continents," CNN declared. Numerous experts have echoed those sentiments over the years. Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist who has spoken out against Blue Monday in The Guardian numerous times, has described the work as "farcical" with "nonsensical measurements." Burnett also considered the trend "disrespectful to those who suffer from genuine depression, suggesting that it is temporary, minor, and experienced by everyone, rather than what may be a chronic and incapacitating condition."

Mental health practitioners have warned that attempting to associate depression with one day a year based on arbitrary calculations could trivialize the experiences of people dealing with diagnosed clinical conditions, such as seasonal affective disorder (SAD), colloquially known as seasonal depression. Symptoms of SAD include persistent daily depression, irritability, fatigue, loss of appetite, and suicidal ideation, among other things, per the National Institute of Mental Health.

"There is generally more sadness in the winter time and January is not uncommon at all for overall more sadness among folks," said Dr. Ravi Shah, a psychiatrist at Columbia University's Irving Medical Center, told CNN. "So rather than dial in to one specific day, I think the more interesting question is what it is about the winter that affects our mood."

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