“Blue Monday” is churnalism, beware any journalist who puffs it

January 24th, 2009 by Ben Goldacre in blue monday, cash-for-"stories" | 77 Comments »

The Guardian,
Saturday January 24 2009
Ben Goldacre

Blue Monday started life as a corporate puff for Sky Travel (end of January, perfect time to book a holiday). Their PR company, incidentally, offered a suspiciously similar ready-made “equation” to another academic, just months before it first appeared as important research by Cardiff academic Cliff Arnall.

But now Blue Monday has slipped out of Sky’s ownership and become part of the canon of pseudoscientific media myth. Most alarmingly, last year it was used by the Samaritans, and this year it was used by the Mental Health Foundation. These people, apparently, think it’s okay to use bullshit to promote awareness of mental health issues.

The Sun say “it is officially the most depressing point of the year. The misery of “Blue Monday” was worked out by psychologist Dr Cliff Arnall.” The Express loved it. The Mirror too. “Experts have worked it out” said Channel 4CBBC fed it to children: “Researchers say the third Monday in January is when people are more unhappy than at any other time in the year.”

When I last criticised Arnall in 2006 (he also has a formula sponsored by Walls for the happiest day, which is in June), Cardiff University wrote to the paper, asking us to point out that he had only been a part-time tutor at the university, and left in February.  These efforts to distance themselves from their famous child felt slightly disingenuous since they were also, at the same time, quoting Arnall’s ridiculous appearances proudly in their monthly roundups of the good work done by Cardiff press office to spread scholarship to the people.

I hope they are busy disabusing everyone else this year, including the Daily Mail, of course: “Today – January 19, 2009 – is the most depressing day in HISTORY, say experts. Psychologist Dr Cliff Arnall has devised a mathematical formula that pinpoints today as Blue Monday.”

Meanwhile Martin Hird, a senior lecturer in mental health and psychological therapies at Leeds Metropolitan University, told the Telegraph: “I would guess there is something in it based on the daylight hours and people’s social circumstances.” Right. You’d guess. Rather than actually knowing, or researching anything. I don’t fully understand why we don’t just ask your hairdresser instead.

And is there good evidence of season having an impact on our collective mood? Seasonal affective disorder is its own separate thing. If you look at the evidence on the population’s mood, depression, and suicide changing over the seasons, you do, in fact, find a glorious mess. Come into my anal and obsessive universe.

Back in 1883 Esquirol commented on the higher incidence of suicide in spring and early summer. Swinscow showed the same thing with all UK suicides from 1921-1948. So that’s not really winter blues. A study in 2000 looked at all UK suicide data from 1982-96 and found that even this seasonal pattern had pretty much disappeared.

What about elsewhere? A 1974 study on all suicides in North Carolina (3,672) and admissions to their Veterans Hospital Psychiatry Service (3,258) from 1965 to 1971 showed no seasonal variation. A 1976 Ontario study found peaks of suicide and admissions for depression in spring and autumn. Suicide is highest in Summer, says a paper from Australia in 2003. I’m really not getting this Blue January thing.

Maybe you want data from the general population on mood. A study in 1986 looked at 806 representative males from Finland and found low mood more common in the summer. Some studies do find higher rates of depressive symptoms in the winter (Nayyar and Cochrane, 1996; Murase et al., 1995), but then, some find the opposite results, like a peak in the spring (Nayham et al., 1994) or summer (Ozaki et al., 1995). One study from just last month proactively asked 360 patients to rate their mood regularly, rather than waiting for an event, and found no relationship, again, between mood and season.

Maybe there are other sources of data you could explore? A paper looking at GP prescriptions for antidepressants in 1984 found a spring peak. An earlier paper from 1981 (Williams and Dunn) looks at prescriptions from 1969-75 and finds peaks in February, May and October. Another from the same year looked at GP consultations for depression and found peaks in May-to-June and November-to-January (they found similar results for osteoarthritis, oddly).

I’m not claiming to have done a thorough systematic review of the academic literature before breakfast. I’m just saying it’s possibly a bit more complicated than everyone getting depressed in winter.

Maybe those papers are too old? Recently, researchers have found a peak in admissions for depression in autumn (Sato et al., 2006 and Silverstone et al., 1995), winter (Lee et al., 2007) and spring/summer (Shapira et al., 2004). Eight other groups of researchers have found no seasonal peak in admissions for mania and depression at all (Partonen and Lönnqvist, 1996, Partonen and Lönnqvist, 1996, Suhail and Cochrane, 1998, Whitney et al., 1999, Goikolea et al., 2007, Daniels et al., 2000, Upshur, 2005 and Mortazi et al., 2002), and no peak in admissions for depression (Kerr-Corrêa et al., 1998). Stop me now.

And worst of all, we know that lots of things really are associated with depression, like social isolation, stressful life events, neighbourhood social disorder, poverty, child abuse, and the rest. Get those in the news, I dare you. Suicide is the third biggest cause of life years lost. Anything real you could do to study the causes, and possible preventive measures, or effective interventions, would be cracking. Making stupid stuff up about the most depressing day of the year, on the other hand, doesn’t help anyone, because bullshit presented as fact is simply disempowering.

If you like what I do, and you want me to do more, you can: buy my books Bad Science and Bad Pharma, give them to your friends, put them on your reading list, employ me to do a talk, or tweet this article to your friends. Thanks! ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

77 Responses

  1. NorthernBoy said,

    January 26, 2009 at 1:30 pm

    Further to the above, the book that I recommend to Mr Green is available here,


    I would recommend it for anyone who needs to express themselves clearly in writing. As well as excising irrelevant and unnecessarily diverting circumlocutions, it will give the author an unerring ability to expunge, cast-out, dethrone displace (and replace) sentences such as this one, in the name of actually getting your point across well.

  2. Nutritious Terrapin said,

    January 26, 2009 at 2:14 pm

    this sort of episode simply reinforces the shocking truth about the power of the media in society and their ability to sway or influence the average public opinion. Guess it must have been a quiet day in the office for everyone to sieze on the Blue-Monday nonsense as newsworthy. That goes for all the newspapers that wasted their time dwelling on this nonesnse. (Oops, that would include you as well, Ben!)

  3. Wonko said,

    January 26, 2009 at 2:27 pm

    Isn’t this agonising over unhappiness just the other side of the government and third sector guff about “happiness”?

    Being “unhappy” is not the same as being depressed – a condition that is more about exhaustion, impaired capacity, loss of memory and concentration, etc – and the equating of mental illness with unhappiness serves only to demean the lived experience of those unfortunate to go through episodes of mental illness.

    All the focus on “unhappiness” does is to perpetuate one of the stigmas around depression – that we’ve all been there when, in fact, less than 20% have been there. The focus on middle class “affluenza” that accompanies this debate detracts from the reality that the mental illness and suicide hotspots in the UK are those that experience the greatest deprivation – eg, East Glasgow, Belfast, the Northeast of England and most of South Wales – Wales has a child suicide rate 5 times higher than England! news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/wales/4673920.stm

    Sometimes these issues do get into the news. But the “happiness agenda” tends to trump them with a media/political class that wants simple explanations and magic wand solutions (Prozac, CBT, Ecotherapy for f*** sake!) rather than address the real mess that some of our communities and the people who live in them have got into.

  4. tom-p said,

    January 26, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    Ben, why did you mention the names of Arnall’s corporate Sponsors? By doing so you just made him more money.
    You could have said ‘a travel agent’ and ‘an ice cream company’, which would have deprived the douchebags who paid for his crap of the exposure they want and deprived Arnall of yet more filthy lucre.

  5. SimonCox said,

    January 26, 2009 at 3:18 pm

    Andy Green: “G+O+O²+D = Beat Blue Monday

    G = Desire to create good to make the world a better place
    O = Available meme and publicity skills
    O² = Public and media receptiveness
    D = Failing to address real issues for the scientific community in the world

    S = Intelligent individuals
    N = Too much time on their hands
    I = Inadequate fact-checking
    D = Failing to address real issues for the scientific community in the world
    E = Easy target”

    Andy, that first equation of yours is awesome. I love the way that you’ve squared the second “O”, just like a real scientist! But I’m disappointed to note that inclusion of “D” on the left hand side of the equation means that Beat Blue Monday is partly “Failing to address real issues for the scientific community in the world”.

    As for the second one, S+N+I+D+E, this is really revolutionary. A mathematical equation without an equals sign! That is just heuristic to the max.

    Here’s an equation for you; you’ll probably just call it snide, but if you do then you are being staggeringly naive as it is just a heuristic way of expressing a symbolic representation of what you appear to be doing:

    (Yo+Ur)/F+O+R+M+U+L+A = S+H+I+T

    Where Yo, Ur, F, O, R, M, U, L, A, S, H, I and T are all arbitrary values.

    Excuse me, I have to go – I think I just shifted one of my paradigms.

  6. CampFreddie said,

    January 26, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    You mean Andy Green isn’t an elaborate Poe’s Law satire?

    I think we’re all quite aware of what heuristics, paradigm shifts and memes are.
    Blue Monday is a powerful meme, but hardly a paradigm shift. As an heuristic, if fails, since it is true only for about 1 in 365 people.

    However, there is a powerful meme which says that people who work for PR companies are asshats. I’ve found that this simple heuristic has a very high specificity and low false positive rate.

  7. pluckybow said,

    January 26, 2009 at 9:32 pm

    Just a quick post to mention that the first time I heard about this equation was when I overheard several clinical trial staff at my workplace discussing it in a totally uncritical way.

    That was an uneasy lunchtime for me.

  8. The Biologista said,

    January 27, 2009 at 12:07 am


    Having worked for a CRO myself, I’m totally unsurprised. You should consider yourself lucky to have gotten a break from the never-ending discussion of Celebrity Big Brother.

  9. HowardW said,

    January 27, 2009 at 1:45 pm

    This is probably a misguided train of thought, but anyway:

    Can anyone enlighten me (and others) as to how Cliff Arnall obtained the result “19th January” from his “formula” for calculating the most depressing/miserable day of the year.

    The formula quoted by the Mirror article is:

    D = N + M (T+1) C R (B-S)/J.

    D = disaster
    N = natural disasters
    M = man-made disasters
    T = temperature
    C = post-Christmas gloom
    R = number of New Year’s resolutions broken
    B = borrowing
    S = salary
    J = job security

    Specifically, if anyone could clarify the ranges/units of the above that would be a good start. e.g. are N and M the *number* of disasters? cumulative over the year? Is temperature in Celsius? Kelvin? and temperature of what? when?

    If you get 19 for D as your answer, does that mean January 19th?

    What values were used to get the 19th Jan answer?

    Although I believe the “formula” to be, well, not really a formula, I would genuinely like to know how values for each of the right-hand side “variables” should be measured/deduced, and how the result for D should be interpreted.


  10. The Biologista said,

    January 27, 2009 at 2:23 pm


    I’m gonna guess that D is some arbitrary score that we get when we input the variables for a given day. We can then compare the days of the year using that score and arrive at our bullshit answer. The Daily Mail, presumably, input the data for every day in HISTORY and then found the one with the best/worst score. They must have, surely?

  11. EleanorC said,

    January 27, 2009 at 4:54 pm

    The mind boggles to think how Arnall might have attempted to quantify “R = number of New Year’s resolutions broken” across a population.

    (If it helps, my score for R = 0. Not because I haven’t broken any, but because I didn’t make any.)

  12. NorthernBoy said,

    January 27, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    You just need to note that it is not even vaguely cyclical to see that it is BS. IT takes no account of the seasons, or the holidays scattered throughout the year, and there can be no possible justification for having natural disasters unmodified by other variables, but man-made disasters being acted on by temperature.

    That an academic put their name to this really goes a long way to showing that a carer in academia is a very poor indication for having a great mind.

  13. NorthernBoy said,

    January 27, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    Or even a career…


  14. diceman said,

    January 28, 2009 at 12:26 am

    What most annoys me about all these formula stories is the way they try to assign a value to something that is relative to the person who’s reading it. Plus, of course, the units issue.

    For example take something like pain.

    If you asked me to rate a particular pain on a scale of 1-10. My base line for 10 is a broken pelvis suffered whilst also breaking a wrist and a knee plus impact damage to an area that shall remain nameless.

    Somebody else who’s been fortunate enough to not suffer anything worse than a hangnail has a totally different base line.

    If your calling these science then you need to go get a good dictionary.

  15. thepoisongarden said,

    January 28, 2009 at 9:10 am


    Used properly, which, of course, doesn’t always happen, the pain scale is a slightly useful measure of relativity in an individual.

    ‘Yesterday my pain was 5 but after I took your drug my pain was 3.’

    (That doesn’t mean your drug reduced my pain. It might just be that you’ve been kind enough to ask about me, so I feel better.)

    Anyone who said ‘you are in 7 pain whereas he is in 3, so I will treat you first’ would be seriously awry.

  16. pv said,

    January 29, 2009 at 1:23 am

    diceman said,
    January 28, 2009 at 12:26 am

    What most annoys me about all these formula stories is the way they try to assign a value to something that is relative to the person who’s reading it.

    You mean like a horoscope? Hmm.

  17. Junkmonkey said,

    February 1, 2009 at 2:16 am

    I’m depressed that there have been 78 comments about Blue Monday and no one has mentioned New Order once yet…

  18. emen said,

    February 1, 2009 at 11:14 am

    Is it just me or there really was no BS column in the Guardian this week?

    Maybe Ben’s on holiday and that’s something everbody knows.

  19. Ben Goldacre said,

    February 1, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    soz my bad, no col, will post something else in a bit. also some really quite good fun stuff in the pipeline.

  20. DrJon said,

    February 1, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    Emen (80) – Depends what you mean by BS 🙂

    Thanks Ben!

  21. emen said,

    February 1, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    DrJon :-DDD, there probably was!

    Ah, thanks Ben!

  22. longyan said,

    November 6, 2009 at 2:45 am

    It is no use doing what ugg bailey button you like ugg boots ; you have got to like ugg classic cardy what you do  My philosophy of ugg lo pro button life is work . When work is a pleasure , life is joy ! When work is duty ,ugg knightsbridge life is slavery .Work banishes those three great evils : boredom , vice, and poverty.

  23. wayscj said,

    November 21, 2009 at 6:12 am

    ed hardy ed hardy
    ed hardy clothing ed hardy clothing
    ed hardy shop ed hardy shop
    christian audigier christian audigier
    ed hardy cheap ed hardy cheap
    ed hardy outlet ed hardy outlet
    ed hardy sale ed hardy sale
    ed hardy store ed hardy store
    ed hardy mens ed hardy mens
    ed hardy womens ed hardy womens
    ed hardy kids ed hardy kids ed hardy kids

  24. andybodders said,

    January 16, 2010 at 10:34 am

    Excellent commentary on this exploitative and fictional event Blue Monday. But we don’t have take this PR rubbish from holiday companies, motorbike retailers and others. Fight back! Join us on Twitter on 18 January 2010 for #happymonday. Smile and bring a smile to others. Do something to help others be happy.


  25. Prom123 said,

    July 12, 2010 at 10:18 am

    When you are looking for cheap prom dresses, make sure of precise measurements about the prom dresses.You can choose prom dresses and
    cheap prom dresses made of lace, or satin fabrics.

  26. lhl7083609 said,

    March 11, 2013 at 10:06 am


  27. dulan said,

    February 16, 2014 at 3:38 pm

    adf.ly/dcCwc viwe and be cool