Does Winter Really Bring On The Blues? Maybe Not

For millions of Americans, the good cheer of Christmas and other festivals is marred by what many call the "holiday blues." Counselors, therapists and self-help books offer advice on how to beat this seasonal depression. But the ubiquitous "winter blues" might just be a myth.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, it is that time of year again. For millions of Americans, the good cheer of Christmas and all the other festivals is marred by what many call the winter blues. Counselors, therapists, self-help books counsel us on how to beat the onset of depression brought on by wintertime.

We've brought in NPR's social science correspondent, Shankar Vedantam. He regularly comes in with hard data on social trends. And he's come in today with a large stack of papers, and I've dumped them on the table. I feel like I'm back in college, and a professor has just given me my assignment for the week...

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: ...and Shankar, what is this?

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: Well, it isn't just paper, David. It's data.

GREENE: And you love data.

VEDANTAM: I do. I decided to take a look at the empirical evidence for wintertime depression, widely believed to be ubiquitous.

GREENE: OK.

VEDANTAM: In 2009, I found a study by University of Vermont researcher who reported that parents were finding that teenagers were more depressed in the winter. In 2010, there was another study by Albert Yang, who measured Google searches for the word "depression" between the years 2004 and 2009. And he found that the further north you go on the planet, more people search for the word depression as it gets colder.

GREENE: Which is a narrative we've all kind of come to understand. I mean, it's cold, it's dark, and people get more depressed during the wintertime.

VEDANTAM: Right. Now, there are certainly people who are affected by the dark. There's a disorder called seasonal affective disorder. It's a real disorder, but it affects relatively small numbers of people.

GREENE: A lot of people buy lamps, trying to help themselves through that.

VEDANTAM: Exactly, but the wintertime depression is supposed to be something that's much more ubiquitous. I decided to take a look at the data, and when I looked at the actual studies, what I found was completely the opposite of what the conventional wisdom seems to be. Study after study after study seems to show that people are not more depressed in the winter. If anything, they are less depressed in the winter.

And, you know, one of the leading indicators of depression is suicide. In 2010, for example, sociologists at the University of California, Riverside, they examined more than 130,000 suicides in the United States between 2000 and 2004. They found that suicide was highest in the spring and summer, much lower in the winter. Same thing in Japan. Fewer suicides during the December holidays. There was a study in Denmark finding that suicides also dropped during the winter. There are studies of reindeer herdsman in Northern Finland, people in the Netherlands. All these studies seem to point to one thing: Depression seems to go up in the spring, summer and fall. It tends to go down in the winter.

GREENE: Wow - which totally blows up the narrative that we've all sort of had for a long time.

VEDANTAM: It does.

GREENE: So where did the narrative actually come from, that wintertime is a time when more people get depressed?

VEDANTAM: Well, as best as I can tell, David, it originated in psychoanalysis, and has then been amplified by journalists. In 1955, James P. Cattell wrote an article in Psychoanalytic Review about something he called the holiday syndrome, which he described as irritability, nostalgia or bitterness about holidays of youth. And now, journalists have taken that idea and run with it. It's become a staple on daytime television.

GREENE: But you love data. And there is some actual data that during this part of the year, there are more Google searches for the word depression, which must tell us something.

VEDANTAM: Well, one possibility, David, is that we've bombarded people with the idea that they're supposed to feel miserable over the holidays. Now, the holidays can be stressful. We have high expectations. We are juggling family. There are a lot of presents we have to buy. And people might be interpreting that stress as depression, when it actually isn't clinical depression.

In fact, the earlier study I told you about - about parents seeing their teenagers as being more depressed in the winter - the study also asked the teenagers how they were feeling. It turned out the teenagers weren't reporting that they were more depressed in the winter. It's just their parents who were interpreting the teenagers' behavior as depressed behavior.

GREENE: Shankar, thanks - as always - for coming in.

VEDANTAM: Thank you, David.

GREENE: Shankar Vedantam regularly joins us to talk about social science research. You can follow him on Twitter @hiddenbrain. And while you're at it, follow this program @nprgreene, @nprinskeep and @morningedition.

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