Blue Monday. Usually the third Monday in January that—as calculated using a complicated-looking scientific formula—happens to be the most depressing of the year. It makes sense when you think about it: Christmas is over, and with it, any bright side of having to wear four coats and two hats every time someone opens a door. Everyone's broke and monumentally hungover. The next thing to look forward to is Valentine's Day.
But despite all this, the idea that there is a day where you're mathematically more likely to be sad doesn't go much deeper than the fact that it, y'know, sounds about right.
Invented initially way back in 2005, the idea originally appeared on a press release for Sky Travel's PR company, getting picked up by news outlets around the UK and destined to be churned out every January since. In those 11 years, it's managed to work its way across the Atlantic, with American sites reporting on it as well as other European publications. But what is Blue Monday actually based on, apart from a need for Sky Travel to sell more holidays?
Just because it's a press release, that doesn't necessarily mean the maths its based on is a load of BS. To the casual observer it could very well be valid—partly because it's backed by academic Cliff Arnall of Cardiff University, and partly because it looks all complicated:
Tt = travel time; D = delays; C = time spent on cultural activities; R = time spent relaxing; ZZ = time spent sleeping; St = time spent in a state of stress; P = time spent packing; Pr = time spent in preparation.
I got my old flatmate and current good friend Matthew to explain this all to me after he'd clocked off at his fancy finance job crunching big numbers at a big financial company. Because of said fancy finance job—and the fact he did economics at university—Matthew has always really enjoyed a good formula, whereas I suffer from the Math Sweats and once thought four multipled by six was feasibly 70.
Right off the bat there were issues. "For a start, in mathsy language, 'ZZ' would actually mean 'Z multiplied by Z', and would be written as Z2," Matthew says. "Here they are using it to define a single metric: time spent sleeping. I accept that ZZ is funnier since it represents snoring, but their mathematical misuse makes me doubtful of their dedication to mathematical purity."
But down to the actual maths. The first term of the formula is just looking at the ratio of time spent doing nice things (sleeping, relaxing) against time spent doing bad things (being stressed, traveling). So if you spend more time doing nice things, you get a higher ratio, and you're closer to exceeding 400, which is what the whole formula appears to drive at. That number—400—is the goal for happiness and if you exceed that figure, you're happy.
"The problem is, the whole formula can be thrown out of whack by adding time spent packing multiplied by time spent preparing, whatever that means," explains Matthew. "Imagine the whole of the first term equals two. In other words, you spend twice as much time doing nice stuff than bad stuff. You also spend 20 hours packing and 20 hours preparing. In total that's 2 + (20 x 20) = 402. But what if you spend twice as much time doing bad things and still also spend 20 hours packing and 20 hours preparing? In total that's 0.5 + (20 x 20) = 400.5. Despite your shit, stressed out life, you're still really happy thanks to packing bags."
According to this formula, even if you sleep for just one tortuous hour, you could still have broadly the same happiness rating as if you slept eight hours and were really chilled out, as long as you spent hours packing luggage. Right.
How can you add weather to net debt? It's like trying to add your running speed to the colour of an apple.
"The second formula is just fucking stupid," he continues, succinctly. "How can you add weather to net debt? One is measured in wind-speed, the other measured in pounds sterling. It's like trying to add your running speed to the colour of an apple.
So the way in which the Blue Monday date is calculated is bullshit. What about the academic who championed it?
Shortly after the initial release of the original Blue Monday idea, a Guardian article uncovered that the company had approached as many academics as they could, offering them money in exchange for putting their name to it. It was eventually linked to Cliff Arnall of Cardiff University. Shortly after the story exploded across major news outlets, a correction appeared below this article, pointing out exactly how much involvement Cardiff University wanted with this Blue Monday furore: "Cardiff University has asked us to point out that Cliff Arnall… was a former part-time tutor at the university but left in February."
Since then, Blue Monday has become part clickbait (seven ways to beat Blue Monday!) and part reason for the odd amusing tweet, but it's not always the harmless bit of social media fun you'd think. Leading UK mental health charity MIND have spent the last 11 years trying to stay as far away from it as possible, believing it to be, at best, a bit of stupid pop psychology and, at worst, something that really makes light of a year-round mental health problem that affects a quarter of the UK population every year.
"Blue Monday contributes to damaging misconceptions about depression and trivializes an illness that can be life threatening. One in six people will experience depression during their life,' says Stephen Buckley, the head of information at MIND. This year, rather than ignore it, the charity has decided to use it to its advantage, reaching those who may be struggling with depression or anxiety and spreading general awareness using the hashtag #BlueAnyday.
We want to remind people that depression can happen at any time.
''We want to remind people that depression can happen at any time and that Mind is available to help people throughout the year. There are of course certain things that may make people feel down at this time of year, such as post-Christmas financial strains, broken New Year's resolutions, bad weather and short daylight hours. However, depression is not just a one day event," adds Buckley. "It can be extremely debilitating, with common symptoms including inability to sleep, seeing no point in the future, feeling disconnected from other people and experiencing suicidal thoughts."
That's something to remember amid the "10 ways to beat Blue Monday" lists, funny tweets, and ironic Facebook posts. It's not about bad mathematics, being broke after Christmas, or getting down on a conveniently named day.
As MIND argues, we should start using it as a reminder that depression is a very real struggle, and perhaps rather than ignoring or dismissing it, take it as an opportunity to reach out to someone you know who might be having a rubbish time. Text that friend who is down and see if they want to go for lunch. Send a message to cousin you've heard is going through a rough patch. Or, at the very least, don't get caught up in it all and book a holiday for god's sake. Wait until Tuesday, if just for the principle of it.