Analysis: some people find January hard but Blue Monday is an unhelpful piece of pseudoscientific nonsense

If you think Blue Monday is real, think again. The "most depressing day of the year" — supposedly every third Monday in January — is a pseudoscientific construct, that originated with a travel agency as an attempt to boost holiday sales. Although it pops up every year, there is no scientific basis for it.

The whole concept of Blue Monday is flawed, says Dr. Matt Wall, cognitive neuroscientist and Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of Medicine, Imperial College, London. "There have been no serious studies which have ever identified anything similar — it's like asking "what's the sunniest horse?" or "which vegetables are best at snooker?"."

"It might seem like just a harmless bit of fun, but anyone who's ever experienced real clinical depression - either first-hand, or via a loved one - will tell you that it's no laughing matter," says Wall, who is a researcher at the Clinical Psychopharmacology Unit, University College London. "Life is hard enough already, especially this winter, with the cost of living rising in many places and people in genuine hardship - why make it harder?"

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, neuroscientist Dr Sabina Brennan on how Blue Monday is just another winter day

"More generally, it's a nonsense piece of pseudoscientific misinformation which contributes to the whole ecosystem of junk science which supports other things like vaccine hesitancy, beliefs about 5G masts, alternative medicine, and all the other rubbish that people believe," he says.

Because there’s no research or scientific backing to the claim, it’s "deeply unhelpful" for the efforts of scientists to generate real knowledge about depression and other mental health conditions, says Dr Jane Conway, SFI-IRC Pathway Fellow and Lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Galway. "[Readers] trust that because there's an equation and because a scientist has said this, it's implied that there is genuine research backing up this claim. I think it's very disingenuous when they discover that it's not. It is a cynical ploy by a marketing company with a veneer of science, to lend a fake credibility. This is deeply damaging and disrespectful to scientists and disrespectful to the general public as well."

Of course, the idea of "January blues" does resonate for people, which might explain why it keeps coming up. It resonates in part because there are aspects to this month of the year — rather than an arbitrary Monday — that are unique within our culture, says Conway. "In Ireland, Christmas is a big collective, cultural event for most people and people have mostly had holidays, they've had extra time with their families, they've had additional socialising and financial expenses etc. So, do these things affect mental health? They can, yes."

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Claire Byrne, when it comes to sleep are you a lark or an owl?

Conway highlights that it resonates in part also because some people experience what’s called Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), whereby there is a seasonal pattern to their mood. For some people this means that in winter they are lower in energy and may fall into a depression and clinical depression, she explains. "You can consider the role of light and sleep. Ireland is a very northern European country and we clearly have less light in the winter — where it's dark in the morning and it's dark at four or five o’clock, so we have less sun exposure, and exposure to sunlight is what regulates our circadian rhythm."

We have specific light receptors in our eyes that link with our brains to set our circadian rhythm, because humans have evolved on a on a planet that has a 24 hour cycle of light and dark, Conway explains. That’s why it’s helpful to experience daylight hours to combat jet-lag and regulate your sleep cycle when you fly around the world. Similarly to the jet-lag we experience during travel, it’s also possible to experience "social jet-lag" where your body is out of its regular rhythm thanks to late nights and changing schedules while you’re off work for Christmas, for example.

Another aspect to why we might not feel so good in winter in general is that in a country like Ireland, we have less daylight and during the daylight hours we do have, we’re often in offices or schools etc. The lack of light exposure can then affect our sleep. "And when sleep is affected that can have cascading effects on people's mental health and physical health as well," she says.

We need your consent to load this YouTube contentWe use YouTube to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From TED, circadian neuroscientist Russell Foster on why we sleep

Dr Bert van den Bergh, Senior lecturer in European Studies At The Hague University of Applied Sciences, calls Blue Monday "successful nonsense". "For many people, January is a tough month: restart of the normal routine after a healing break, waiting for lighter days which return too slowly, seeing good intentions fall rapidly apart, being in a new year which quickly appears to be not so new, and so on.

And sure, these things might hit people more strongly on Mondays, on what he calls "the restart day" of the week. "But blaming the day itself of course is diverting, and blaming the third Monday of the year especially is simply misleading," van den Bergh says. "So, what should we blame instead? What are those feelings really about? Blue Monday enables us to dodge this question."

"Why do we tap so willingly into this story every year again? Probably for two reasons - it provides us with a simple digestible answer to a difficult existential question. We seem to be eager to be misled, as the marketing origin of Blue Monday is an open secret, but at the same time we seem to be equally eager to talk about our blues, our dark days, our 'black dog’ etc. So indeed, what can be done to offset this paradox? Maybe starting to have a closer look at our selves and at what is really bothering us?" he adds.

Read more: How is the cost of living crisis impacting on our mental health?

The start of the new year can lead people to become reflective and connect with what may or may not be serving or working for them in their life, says Dr Kelly Dickson, associate professor in Evidence-Based Mental Health at UCL and an Integrative Psychotherapist in clinical practice. They may ask themselves questions such as; how their previous year was?; What will this year be like?; What changes do they want to make?; What resources do they have or need to support them?

"This can lead to a sense of anxiety or depression that ‘nothing may be different this year’ or that something really needs to change," she says. "The middle of January can also be at the point, where initial optimism around new year resolutions/goals/intentions start to slip away and as before, the reality of someone’s current life-situation comes more starkly into focus and it feels incredibly difficult. However, as said, it can also lead to people realising, they need additional support, and to connect with what isn’t working, which can then be the impetus for more lasting change. As this is often when people reach out for professional support, as ‘this year really needs to be different from the last’.

"Although this can be a scary feeling it can also be an important mechanism for psychological change." Dickson says that although there may not be empirical evidence to support the term:

  • Blue Monday can be an important concept to draw attention to people, in the northern hemisphere, who do report experiencing seasonal depression.
  • Blue Monday can also speak to the impact of socioeconomic conditions on mental health, such that a state or depression or low mood is more apparent in January when we are more likely to be faced with the reality of work commitments and/or lack of money due to holiday spending etc.
  • It can also simply draw attention to mental health overall

Additional reporting by Michelle Hough and Alina Trabattoni for the European Broadcast Union's A European Perspective initiative.

If you have been affected by issues raised in this article, support information and helplines are available here. You can call The Samaritans on 116 123 (available 24/7) or Aware on 1800 80 48 48 or email

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ