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How to Combat the Winter Blues

Jan 20, 2019

Credit J. Junker

You’ve heard for Black Friday, but what about Blue Monday? In addition to being Martin Luther King day, the third Monday is January is known to some as the saddest day of the year. But why? And what can we do to combat it?

The idea of "Blue Monday" originated in 2005 by British psychologist Cliff Arnall, and there wasn't a lot of science behind it. But he did have some good instincts. He considered the weather, how much debt people are in because of the holidays, how many days since failing at one's New Year's resolution, and general motivation levels.  

"All those factors do, in fact, lead to lower overall levels of well-being," said Dr. Catherine Sanderson. She's the Manwell Family Professor of Life Sciences at Amherst College and author of The Positive Shift: Mastering Mindset to Improve Happiness, Health, and Longevity

"December is a time in which many people are looking forward to time with family, opening presents, having a break from work, at cetera," she said. "And then all of a sudden January comes around and there's the letdown after the excitement of the holiday period."

Sanderson told Living Lab Radio the best evidence now suggests that about 50 percent of our happiness is coded in our genes.

“That means that for some people it's pretty easy to look on the bright side," she said. "Other people, who don't have that genetic predisposition to happiness, may find themselves really in a slump and have more difficulty pulling themselves out when they’re having a period of sadness or loneliness.”

That doesn't mean we should give up, she said. It's important to remember that January (and the winter) does eventually end. 

"It is really important to give people hope that they're not always going to feel like they do now," she said.

The good news is, there are ways that we can train ourselves to find greater happiness even if we didn't get that "genetic win of the lottery," she said. 

"We can become aware of when our thoughts are really not rational -- are not helpful -- and we can learn to reframe them," she said.

Sanderson got a lesson in this from her school-age son when she asked him if he was stressed about standardized test day at school. 

"And he looked up at me and said, 'I love standardized testing day. It's so quiet. Everybody just sits, fills in the little bubbles, and at the end of the day you get candy.'"

Web content by Liz Lerner and Elsa Partan.