Let's shake off the pessimism – 'Blue Monday' isn't real

Optimism really can make us live longer

Oxford Street in London, on January 10. In the UK, mask-wearing in public places will be dropped on January 26. AP

Earlier this week, January 17, was "Blue Monday", allegedly the most depressing day of the year, at least in the UK. The third Monday of the year is around the time the energy spike of new year’s resolutions for lots of people wears off. Many are busy with work, and no matter how much some of us might love our jobs, the sense of being stuck in a hamster wheel affects even the best of us. For those out of love with their work, the dissatisfaction after annual leave can be more acute. If we believed the myths surrounding Blue Monday, we might be fated to feel down.

After nearly two years of the pandemic, in which no-one has escaped from physical, emotional or mental hardship, we are all fatigued. I know I find myself pondering over how this will ever end, and what will be our moment of exit, if ever. The mental health toll, in particular is high, as has been extensively reported, and only time will tell what long term impacts these months have had on our well-being, including the actual after-effects of "long Covid".

Melvin Goldstein, 90, smiles as his daughter Barbara Goldstein greets him in their first in-person, indoor family visit inside the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, March 28, 2021, in the Bronx borough of New York. AP

I admit that I’m exhausted. I feel down and I don’t want to feel like this anymore. My own story, which I’ve written about previously, is one of caring for young children and vulnerable parents through medical emergencies, along with working and being involved with issues of social injustice. Everyone has their own tale to tell, and for those who have lost loved ones, often in the worst of circumstances, the hardship is even greater.

For many of us, this feels exacerbated by not knowing when it will all end, coupled with the ups and downs of life. If only there was an end date, even far away, how much easier it would be to manage, I tell myself. But I wonder if this is a soothing fiction. Have some of us run out of the inner fuel in our reserve tanks? Like Blue Monday, are we fated to live in this seemingly perpetual gloom and uncertainty?

It turns out that Blue Monday isn’t a scientifically proven fact after all, despite its seemingly legitimate basis. After all, it sounds plausible. But pessimism can pander to our need to validate misery. And this year it feels like we have every legitimate reason to see misery around us.

In fact, Blue Monday was invented in 2005 as a marketing ploy for a travel company called Sky Travel, supported by a scientist that created a formula to calculate our misery. The company has gone bust, and whether the marketing sold more plane tickets, who knows. But the outcome is that we’ve created an annual homage to pessimism on the third Monday of the year.

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A friend and I have vowed to set up an “Optimism Club” on Whatsapp

Maybe we don’t need to be trapped in pessimism and what we need is a healthy dose of optimism. After all, it seems that optimism really can make us live longer. A 2019 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found participants with highest versus lowest optimism levels had 1.5 (women) and 1.7 (men) greater odds of surviving to age 85.

If you look for it you can see optimism in headlines. Most notably there is cautious optimism about the mildness of the Omicron variant and the possibility that the peak is subsiding. With the potential of ever milder variants and improving anti-viral drugs and treatments, dare we feel hopeful?

A child smiles behind a fence during a protest by non-governmental organisation Rio de Paz (Rio of Peace) at the Jacarezinho slum in Rio de Janeiro. Reuters

But even if there are still difficult times to come in the pandemic, optimism may well be the drug that we really need to keep going. A friend and I have vowed to set up an “Optimism Club” on Whatsapp, where the only thing members are allowed to post are positive news stories and upbeat thoughts. Is that Pollyanna-ish? Maybe. But given the overwhelming gloom surrounding us, why not have an oasis of optimism? Shouldn’t a vitamin boost of joy be a daily must-have supplement? We are what we read. And the more we seek out a particular topic, the more we think about it. Instead of going down rabbit holes on social media of conspiracy theories why not fill our minds with positivity?

We are not obliged to choose the negative path. We are not doomed to feel pessimistic. If we seek our more cheerfulness, we will feel more cheerful. And if we believe that we should feel optimistic then our natural bent towards confirmation bias (the tendency to look for things that agree with our existing views) will mean we seek further optimistic stories. This is a virtuous circle if ever there was one. Better to be trapped in that than an endless cycle of despair. Choose positivity. Choose optimism. Choose – if you like to – to start your own optimism club.

Published: January 21, 2022, 9:00 AM
Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed

Shelina Janmohamed is a columnist for The National