Sunday, January 14, 2018

Blue Monday and the 3 Ghosts of the Holiday Season

For those that don't know, Monday, January 15th is "Blue Monday" this year. What is Blue Monday, you may ask? It's supposed to be the most depressing day of the year. There's even a formula for it calculating the weather, debt level (specifically, the difference between debt and our ability to pay), the amount of time since Christmas, time since failing our new year's resolutions, low motivational levels and the feeling of a need to take charge of the situation. Although the origins of Blue Monday are actually quite dubious, there is some truth that January can be kind of a depressing month. 

As someone quite familiar with Seasonal Affective Disorder as both a patient and a doctor, I know this plays a role. After the anticipation of Christmas there's always a bit of a letdown, and in the US at least, the weather often turns truly dreadful. That certainly is a factor.

But I also think there's something about the holiday season that might contribute a little bit. I came to this idea while watching one of those Hallmark Christmas movies with my mother. I watched for a minute and scoffed at the hackneyed formula playing on people's emotions and sentimentality. An hour later I was sitting with a box of tissues rooting for the grizzled town veterinarian to finally find love with the lonely widow. What can I say? Fruitcake makes me emotional.

The first ghost as per the Dickens' legend is the ghost of Christmas past. This is the ghost of regret. For some, it's another year where they haven't met their goals, found love, improved their financial situation, or whatever. For others, being with family after a long layoff stirs up a number of old feelings of not being good enough and letting people down. Others remain estranged from their families, which can be particularly lonely and painful at Christmas time. 

The 2nd ghost is the ghost of Christmas present. This is the ghost of stress. Many of us worry about how we're going to make it all work financially. Others may worry a great deal about how they look, or where they are in their lives, or how they're going to make it through another year without a catastrophe. For parents, there is that pressure to meet expectations and make the holidays special for their children without also going into financial ruin. I remember my own mother working about three different jobs during the month of December so my brothers and I could beat the shit out of each other with our transformers. A lot of parents make that sacrifice. 

The third ghost is the ghost of Christmas future. This is the ghost of anxiety. Anxiety is a future-oriented fear. The unknown. Things hovering in the future that we haven't resolved and spend a lot of time worrying about. Maybe it's our health, or finding love, or passing a test, or paying our bills. All of us have these worries, and they seem to intensify in the middle of January if the Blue Monday equation is to be believed.

So perhaps the most important question is, how do we keep our heads above water during these tough times? That first week back to work? The first big credit card bill that comes? 

In the Hallmark movies, all of that stuff just kind of works itself out, but real life isn't so simple. Many of us have a plan for the new year to do things differently, and perhaps we've already started to slip a little. As gym owners all over the world can tell you, there is a huge difference between motivation and discipline. Motivation is dreaming of looking great and exercising like crazy for a day trying to get there. Discipline is going to the gym with a hangover a week later on a day you really don't feel like wanting to go. Strive for discipline. 

Beyond the usual "goal" stuff, I think we can also do a little better job managing those ghosts. Maybe it's swallowing our pride and making peace with someone from our past (one of my projects this year). Perhaps it's sending someone a short note telling them we're thinking about them in the new year. Or maybe it's even forgiving ourselves for something that is weighing heavily on our minds.

Although January is a time to unbury ourselves from the month before, perhaps it's also an opportunity to erase the etch-a-sketch and start with a clean palette of self-forgiveness and compassion.

And we can also resolve to do a little better with the people in our lives this year. Listen a little better, pay a little closer attention, stay in touch a little more. Be grateful that we all get another spin around the universe this year. Not everyone does.

Let's use our time as kindly as we can this year.