Today, the 20th of January, is the third Monday of this month. It is a cold, gloomy day, pretty much like most winter days here in Baltimore. I woke up; after my usual hesitation to leave a warm bed on a cold day, I went for my morning ablutions, and left for work at the usual time. Little did I realize that today — the third Monday of January — has long been christened the Blue Monday, allegedly the most depressing day of the year.
Clueless as usual about these culture-specific curiosities, I was intrigued by the idea. In the US, the third Monday of January is celebrated as the MLK Day, a federal holiday since 1983, to commemorate the birthday of the humanitarian and Civil Rights giant, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968). How on earth did this day come to be associated with depression, a complex mental health condition, in the island nation across the Big Pond?
I sought to find out. That font of all knowledge, the Internet, revealed some interesting factoids. It appears that in 2005 one Cliff Arnall, a member of the British Society of Clinical and Academic Hypnosis, and a former part-time evening psychology tutor at the adult education unit of Cardiff University, was paid to identify the most miserable day on the calendar by a Public Relations firm on behalf of a holiday travel company, Sky Travel. Arnall came up with a strange equation, mathematical in appearance, but bearing rather arbitrary and unquantifiable — not to mention, incompatible — variables, that claimed to define a day with the “highest depression factor” – when an entire population would be simultaneously subjected to depression, like clockwork, every year.
I am not a psychologist, or qualified in any way to comment authoritatively upon mental health issues. However, from what I have gathered by talking to friends who are mental health professionals, as well as friends who live with clinical depression, is that it is a complex mood disorder that is subject to both biological and environmental factors, has different manifestations both acute and chronic, and may require long-term therapy for alleviation. Of many different presentations, there is one – referred to as Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – that is related to seasonal changes, colder (or sometimes, warmer) temperatures, and diminished (or increased) exposure to sunlight, as happens during winter. These are real medical issues that require professional help, and certainly cannot be pinned down to a day’s influence on the collective mood of a population.
And yet, Arnall’s equation was readily and gleefully made into headlines by, chiefly, UK media, as Dr. Ben Goldacre pointed out in a 2009 essay; the media outlets guilty of an uncritical promotion of this pseudoscientific notion included UK’s The Sun, The Mirror, CBBC (BBC section for young people), Channel 4 News (even until 2013), The Daily Express, The Telegraph, and of course, The Daily Mail (which has, predictably, indulged in the same year after year, including in 2014). When the equation first appeared in 2005, the World News section of US-based NBC News reported it from London, conflating this made-up day with the prevalence of SAD among the UK population. And it appears that CBCNews of Canada, too, has bought into the myth now.
[UPDATE: My erstwhile Scilogs coblogger and science communication expert Paige Brown has written on the Blue Monday phenomenon with some US-specific examples from this year, including CBS Minnesota, Weather Channel, and – quelle horreur – SciencedDaily.]
Along with the mythical equation, also propagated were Cliff Arnall’s academic associations, which – in lieu of experimental evidence – conferred a degree of credibility upon him and his equation. NBC News had described him as “Arnall, who specializes in seasonal disorders at the University of Cardiff, Wales”. The Cardiff University, in response to questions about its involvement in propagating this equation, indicated in 2006 that Cliff Arnall, who holds a B.Sc. and an M.Sc. degree in Psychology from Reading, was once a part-time tutor at the university but left in February that year.
Yet, strangely, in the UK media Arnall continues to be consistently associated with Cardiff University, being referred to as “a psychologist” or “professor” or “lecturer” at Cardiff, “an academic”, or even the deliberately vague “researchers” or “experts”. In his current (2014) LinkedIn profile, Arnall indicates that his association with Cardiff lasted more than 14 years, as a part-time lecturer in Adult Education (as corroborated by Cardiff) and as a Research Psychologist with the School of Social Studies, Cardiff.
Be that as it may, what is perhaps even more strange and surprising is that the Blue Monday meme refuses to die out in the UK media (and elsewhere) even after Arnall (the byline refers to him as ‘the psychologist’) admitted to The Telegraph that the idea of single day of maximum depression is ‘not particularly helpful’.
The depression equation was not the only such equation that sprung forth from the fertile imagination of Cliff Arnall, who currently heads his own UK-based company, ‘No Pills Life Coaching’, acting as a “Trainer, Lecturer and Coach”, who specializes in “well-being, confidence and happiness”. As announced by The Telegraph in 2009, Arnall had calculated a similar equation for the happiest day of the year, falling on a day in the middle of June; this endeavor was paid for by Wall’s Ice-cream. In addition, he also calculated an equation for the ‘perfect long weekend’.
And Cliff Arnall is by no means the only person to derive such PR-driven and paid-for ‘mathematical equations’. The Blue Monday was also designated as the most ‘disaster-prone day’ of the year by a Cambridge mathematician, William Hartson, who apparently worked out another, similar formula involving variables such as ‘disaster’, ‘post-Christmas gloom’ and ‘number of New Year’s resolutions broken’ amongst others. Ben Goldacre drew attention to a few such gems in his 2006 Bad Science column; in the Guardian today, Michael Marshall, vice president of the Merseyside Skeptics Society, has listed quite a few more in circulation.
These science-y myths and curiosities would ordinarily appear hilarious to anyone with an ounce of sense. Cliff Arnall may well have made an immortal contribution to the dictionary of psychobabble. But a part of me, having experienced the gradual and seemingly inexorable encroachment of pseudoscience into academia, can’t help but put a premium on Ben Goldacre’s admonition from 2006:
[…] these equations are scientifically uninformative, and driven by money. But is there more to it than that? […] I am of the opinion that these equation stories – which appear with phenomenal frequency, and make up a significant proportion of the total science coverage in the UK – are corrosive, meaningless, empty, bogus nonsense that serve only to caricature and undermine science.
I find the thought… disturbing.