Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


winter-blues

(ILLUSTRATION: BECKY STARES/SHUTTERSTOCK)

You Can Be Blue in the Winter, But That Doesn’t Mean You’re SAD

• August 29, 2013 • 5:03 PM

(ILLUSTRATION: BECKY STARES/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research chips away at the prevalence of a favorite pop psychology go-to disorder.

I remember growing up that when the days got short, were overcast, or just really foggy, for a while my mom always got pretty melancholy. At age eight, not being a licensed psychiatrist, I didn’t know if this was just a sort of “Rainy Days and Mondays” kind of thing or a serious—i.e. in the book—disorder, but later when I heard about “seasonal affective disorder” it was a low-key “eureka” moment. Although I was pleased to know my mom was pretty average in this regard, it came with a twinge of guilt—what if I‘d gotten my mom some sort of full-spectrum lamp for Christmas instead of macaroni-based jewelry and corrosive perfume?

A 1989 study reported that up to 92 percent of adults noticed some effect on their mood based on season, with young women tending to show the greatest despondency. But new research suggests the whole seasonal affective disorder thing, while it is a thing, may be a bit overblown.

The blues in winter can have many causes, from holiday pressures and being cooped up to awareness that there’s this malady known as SAD.

Part of the issue, according to David Kerr of Oregon State University, who was the lead author of a paper appearing in the Journal of Affective Disorders, is that past studies relied on self-reporting and recollection. “People are really good at remembering certain events and information,” Kerr was quoted in a release from OSU. “But, unfortunately, we probably can’t accurately recall the timing of day-to-day emotions and symptoms across decades of our lives. These research methods are a problem.”

So his team piggybacked on two long-term longitudinal studies, the 30-year Oregon Youth Study and the 23-year Family Transitions Project, to compare actual markers of mood logged several times each year and then compare those findings to the length of the day, amount of sunshine, and the weather. On average, the participants indeed were sadder on shorter days, but “this trend was of modest magnitude and of limited clinical significance,” Kerr and his colleagues wrote.

“We were surprised,” co-author Jeff Shaman of Columbia University was quoted. “With a sample of nearly 800 people and very precise measures of the weather, we expected to see a larger effect.”

While it runs counter to many of the earlier studies, this new research also backs up a 2004 European study (it included sunny Spain and taciturn Finland) that also questioned the prevalence of SAD. That this new study only looked at people from Oregon and Iowa is one of the limitations its authors cite, since SAD is more common in the highest latitudes.

In fact, the authors go to some pains to say they still believe in SAD and specifically recommend cognitive behavioral therapy for its promise. But its pop psychology uses—e.g. diagnosing my mom’s depression—are probably best left alone. The blues in winter can have many causes, from holiday pressures and being cooped up to awareness that there’s this malady known as SAD. “But that’s not the same,” Kerr said, “as long-lasting sadness, hopelessness, and problems with appetite and sleep—real signs of a clinical depression.”

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.