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Blue Monday? Do not believe the hype

Blue Monday? Do not believe the hype

You can't get away from media reporting that the 20th of January 2014 is this year's Blue Monday, apparently the most depressing day of the year. But this is pseudo-science at its very worst, designed to make us spend money to comfort ourselves. Don't be sucked in.

Brace yourself. Blue Monday is almost upon us. The third Monday of January has the dubious accolade of the most depressing day of the year. And it's easy to see why. There's the weather for starters – it's a dark, cold, wet time of year, and these are not conditions for cheerfulness. Then there's the hangover from Christmas and the New Year. Hopefully not the actual hangover (now that would have meant an indulgent festive season!) but the discomfort of weight gain, debt and a general sense of anti-climax that often follows on from our festivities. And Monday was an obvious choice, since many of us are less than thrilled at the prospect of returning to work after the weekend. So it seems intuitive enough that Blue Monday should exist as a phenomenon.

But does it? Let's take a look at how this idea came about. Apparently a psychologist by the name of Dr Cliff Argall came up with an equation that proved the whole idea. He factored in average temperature, days since last pay, days until the next Bank Holiday, average hours of daylight and the number of nights in during the month, and came up with the third Monday in January as the day of the year when our mood is likely to be at its lowest.

Sounds convincing enough, doesn't it? And we're generally pretty impressed with doctoral titles and equations, aren't we? But hold on... What actually happened was that, in 2005, Sky Travel coined the concept of Blue Monday and then asked a handful of academics to put their name to the idea in return for money. Cliff Arnall was a part-time tutor at the University of Cardiff at the time, so he does have the academic credentials. But he is also a self-confessed “media slut.” The whole idea is entirely bogus and was conjured up out of thin air in order to make people spend money on holidays. For what it's worth, actual scientific research into mood levels across the year has yielded ambiguous results.

Recently, an interesting layer of complexity has been added to the Blue Monday phenomenon. A drinks company has analysed over two million tweets sent over the last three Januarys and now claims that there is objective evidence of low mood at this time of year. There was five times the average number of tweets mentioning guilt and six times the average number of tweets complaining about the weather. Clear proof that this is a miserable time of year. And surprise, surprise, this drinks company has the answer to how you can combat all this: drink one of their protein shakes and all will be well with the world.

So why should what is essentially a media hoax matter to those of us concerned about our health and fitness at all? Surely it's just a harmless bit of fun? And isn't it vaguely comforting, if you are having a miserable January, to think that other people might be feeling down, too?

No. It's not harmless. The whole idea of Blue Monday trivialises depression and encourages us to look to material comforts as solutions to a problem that doesn't actually exist – whether that's booking a holiday, drinking a protein shake, or engaging in more general “therapeutic” shopping. It's the last thing anybody needs after the indulgence of Christmas. And if you are feeling genuinely depressed, spending money aimlessly in the vague hope of feeling better certainly isn't going to help in the long term.

So don't get sucked in. Don't let the media create guilt and gloom where there wasn't any, or inflate any low feelings you might have out of all proportion. Above all, don't buy (pun intended) into the proposed solutions.

Whatever the time of year, there are plenty of things that you can do to look after yourself and feel happier. Taking regular exercise is at the top of this list, to the extent that it is even being prescribed by some doctors as an alternative to drug treatment for mild levels of depression. Eating well, getting enough sleep, and engaging in meaningful and rewarding activities daily (and no, tweeting about how miserable you are definitely does NOT qualify as a meaningful activity) are some of the others. It's mostly plain common sense and it works. So next time you're tempted to read yet another article about Blue Monday that invites you to wallow in collective misery created purely for profit, step away from the newspaper or computer screen and take a walk instead.