The Happiness Project

Welcome to the Most Depressing Day of the Year

Apparently, according to a mathematical formula devised by Cliff Arnall, today is the most depressing day of 2009 . Arnall’s formula considers factors like people’s failure to keep up their new year’s resolutions, the weather, post-holidays blues (no more fun, lots of bills), and the fact it’s a Monday.

Paradoxically, I got a happiness boost from someone’s claim that today is the year’s most depressing day. First of all, I got a kick out of the idea of trying to identify the most depressing day with a formula. Silly, but fun. What factors would you use to identify your own personal “most depressing day” formula? You’d probably come up with a very different day, based on the end of basketball season, the opening of bathing-suit season, etc.

In any event, in the United States, this formula is certainly not accurate this year (Arnall is from the U.K.). Today is a Monday, but it’s a holiday, and that raises people’s spirits. Also, it’s the day before President-elect Obama’s inauguration. While most Inauguration Days probably don’t do much to lift people’s moods, this one is different.

But second, even aside from considering the accuracy of the claim, just hearing the announcement that today is “the year’s most depressing day” makes the day seem better. Even if I have a bad day today, I’m not likely to think, “Gosh, this is going to turn out to have been the most depressing day of the year.” Things aren’t likely to be that bad.

There’s a psychological term for this: downward comparison . Comparing my Jan. 19th with the most depressing day I can imagine makes today seem bright. Downward comparisons tend to boost happiness, because they remind us to be grateful for what we have. In one study, people’s sense of life satisfaction changed dramatically depending on whether they completed sentences starting “I’m glad I’m not …” (downward comparison) compared with “I wish I was …” (upward comparison).

So, today, if you’re feeling blue, you’re not alone—and if you’re not feeling blue, you can appreciate that.

* I was thrilled to be included in this list of 5 Web Folk I Admire—Something I Don’t Do Easily on Dan Perlman’s blog, Enquiring Mimes .

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just e-mail me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.