The days are getting shorter, the nights are getting longer, and it is seriously bumming out the over 10 million Americans (1 in 3 British adults) who suffer from some form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). According to press accounts, this yearly malaise reaches its peak on one day in January, known as “Blue Monday.” The thinking is that a confluence of factors ranging from weather to debt turned this Monday into the saddest day of the year.
But cheer up! As it turns out Blue Monday is nothing more than a fabricated, pseudo-science marketing stunt.
While the concept of the saddest day of the year is only a few years old, the term “Blue Monday” dates back much further. In an etymological text from 1908, the phrase is linked to a tradition where churches are traditionally decorated with blue altar cloths on the Monday before Lent. However it goes on to say that some of the meaning may also be associated with excessive drinking. “Blue” as a descriptor was once used to talk about being drunk, so the meaning of a “Blue Monday” could also be any such day when the weekend’s excessive imbibing extended to the work week.
Today, other than being connected to a hit song from the 1980s, a Blue Monday usually refers to that disappointment you get when returning to work after a weekend (possibly still feeling ill from getting too “blue”). Seeing an opportunity to take advantage of a pre-written catchphrase, ad agencies decided to turn Blue Monday into a thing, using math. Crazy math.
The leader of the charge was a one Dr. Cliff Arnall, who at the time was employed by the University of Cardiff, teaching evening classes in psychology at the adult education center. In 2005, Arnall released a seemingly groundbreaking equation that proved January 24th of that year (more broadly, the third or fourth Monday of the month), was the most depressing day of the year. The complicated-looking equation he used to come to this was as follows:
As NBC explained in their coverage of the announcement that year, the variables translated to, “(W) weather, (D) debt, (d) monthly salary, (T) time since Christmas, (Q) time since failed quit attempt, (M) low motivational levels and (NA) the need to take action.” To put this strange calculus into laymen’s terms, it is saying that January’s bad weather combined with the stress of holiday bills are compounded by the dwindling memories of the holidays, and piled upon by general doldrums. If you are thinking that many of these factors seem like arbitrary metrics that are too personal to quantify in any general sense, you are not alone.
Off the bat, outlets like the aforementioned NBC and The Guardian (which would later go on to tear the pseudo science apart in a number of articles over a number of years), gave Arnall’s work some straight-faced press, but the troubling truth of the matter was that the whole thing was blatantly an advertising stunt. Arnall’s work had been released via a press release dreamt up by U.K. PR firm Porter Novelli as a tactic to sell travel packages for now-closed British travel agency, Sky Travel. The idea was that by selling the public on the worst day of the year, they could incentivize them to improve their lives via travel plans.
In addition to the uncomfortable concept of using a real, and often devastating condition like SAD or general depression simply to sell travel tickets, according to one of the campaign’s most vocal critics, Ben Goldacre, the equations didn’t even check out on a mathematical level. In a 2008 article about Arnall’s work, Goldacre call his equations, “dimensionally half-cocked,” and “stupid,” noting that the variables in one of Arnall’s theorems relating to how to experience the perfect weekend can easily be manipulated to essentially cancel itself out. In other words, these math-ish theories, said to be developed by a supposed psychologist (although Goldacre suggests that it is the PR companies that develop the equations, simply finding an academic stooge to put their name on them) are simply smokescreens that they hope the public won’t look too closely at in their fervor to sate their sadness with a little retail therapy.
All of this could even have just been another failed ad campaign, but the myth of Blue Monday continues to persist. Each year, companies ranging from Ferrari to Pret a Manger are still using the idea of the saddest day of the year to hawk their wares. Since the declaration of Blue Monday, Arnall has also announced “the happiest day of the year,” a date in June, this time on behalf of an ice cream company.
The true saddest day of the year is unknown, and likely unquantifiable in any real way. So if you find yourself getting depressed during the grey days of the coming winter, try to take solace in the fact that no matter what day it is, it’s not Blue Monday.