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January blues? Or as good a month as any other?

16 Jan 2012 | Sarah Dale

It's a popular myth that one particular "Blue Monday" in January tops all others for being the most depressing day of the year. This year it's tipped to be today, 16th January. It makes some sense on the face of it - in the UK at least it is cold and dark; people may be in debt from Christmas excess; and who likes Monday mornings at the best of times?

However, Ben Goldacre and others have put paid to the "scientific" evidence for Blue Monday. It was actually just a rather clever marketing idea, adding spurious scientific weight to a holiday company's desire to get us booking our summer break well in advance. It may still feel like the most depressing time of year to many of us - but just because the post Christmas period can be a bit of an anti-climax, there's nothing inherent about today, or any other day, that makes it depressing.

What often makes things or times depressing is our interpretation of events, rather than the events themselves. For many of us today could be a day we really enjoy and remember. Perhaps it's your birthday or something great will happen at work? Or maybe you don't really enjoy Christmas and so January represents a chance to get stuck into new projects. Perhaps the weather's perfect for the sports you enjoy or you just get a warm feeling from battling the elements. Many of us - and I definitely include myself here - have grown to love the contrast and variety that comes with living in a climate with such differences in light and weather across the changing seasons.

Of course, many people enjoy a good old moan about how awful January is and this is partly what gives the "most depressing day" myth its popularity. It brings a sense of bonding which cheers us up in a backwards sort of way. (I wonder if this is what's behind our "enjoyment" of being grumpy in any collective circumstances?) It's also rather convenient to believe the idea that a depressing Monday in January is the reason we feel down or don't feel like getting up for work. It certainly seems easier than challenging our feelings.

So what's the alternative? Well it's not about trying to induce a Pollyanna-like sense of positive thinking even when things hurt us, seem unfair or are going wrong. Feeling angry or upset is often entirely justified and psychologically it's not a good idea to bury these negative emotions. Both socially and politically, such moods have been a force for the good on countless occasions, overturning corrupt regimes and righting injustice.

What can we do then? Perhaps we can start by recognising that any sense of gloom in January is at least partly of our own making - allowing ourselves to get tired and unfit, to overspend, to spend too little time outdoors and to be dwelling too much on the negatives in our lives. (Of course, some people do have real problems in relation to Seasonal Affective Disorder and this is different from the "normal" ups and downs most of us experience. So I am not addressing true SAD or clinical conditions here.)

It's not easy to turn these things around, especially if we and the people around us think it is inevitable to feel this way - a sort of powerlessness in the face of January blues. But although we can't control everything in our lives, and there will always be difficulties to be dealt with, we can often have a much bigger influence on our mood and outlook than we realise. Although it can be seductive to take a passive approach when we feel low (let's hide under the duvet and hope spring comes by the time we come out!), this only tends to exacerbate our negative feelings. With practice we can learn to be more proactive and resilient. 

As the saying goes, "There's no such thing as the wrong weather, just the wrong clothes". So with that mindset let's embrace what January brings: a fresh start after indulgence and celebration; the days starting to get lighter; the first snow drops; some days of brilliantly clear skies and air, and some of tempest that make the bed seem extra cosy and bring a sense of gratitude for a roof over our heads; seasonal vegetables; warm firesides and new drama on the television; friendship without the pressures that Christmas can bring.

Let's ignore the bogus evidence about this much maligned month. Instead, we can try to keep a realistically optimistic outlook; put fears in perspective; spend time with upbeat people; and get outside (whatever the weather).

Times might still be hard - but they'll seem easier to bear.

--- 

Sarah Dale is the occupational psychologist and coach behind the Creating Focus coaching programme. She is author of Keeping Your Spirits Up, and is also writing a blog throughout 2012 exploring the pros and cons of middle age. You can follow her on Twitter at @creatingfocus.

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