Blue picture with Blue Monday written on a blue stone

Goodbye longest month, hello shortest month!

The January Blues might be over, but taking your wellbeing seriously should never stop

Op-ed by Dr Mark McBride-Wright

Whenever a new year rolls around, we mark time by promising ourselves a happier, healthier, and more prosperous year ahead. After the excesses we enjoyed during the festive period, many of us choose to embark on a journey of self-improvement and self-love. 2020 saw remerging trends like Veganuary, Dry-Jan and RED January, all of which encouraged us to eat better, exercise more and set a goal that kept us going until payday.

When we’re waking up in darkness every morning, bracing ourselves for the crisp morning commute, counting the pennies and wishing summer wasn’t another five months away, it’s no wonder January is a notoriously long month. In fact, it even has its own moniker: Blue Monday, which supposedly marks the most depressing day of the year.

However, despite the anecdotal evidence, the lack of vitamin D, and the existence of seasonal affective disorder, there’s no actual science involved in confirming January’s unfortunate reputation. Although the aforementioned all contribute to the general populaces’ low mood, measuring wellbeing on a national scale is incredibly difficult due to its complexity. Between January 2014 and December 2016, the Office of National Statistics reported findings that an estimated 1% of the UK population (over half a million people) reported low ratings across all four of these personal well-being questions:

  • Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
  • Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
  • Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?
  • Overall, how anxious did you feel yesterday?

The findings showed that those with self-reported health issues were most likely to report poor personal well-being1.

It also might surprise people to know that spring, not winter, has higher rates of suicide – particularly in April and May2. The reasons for this are generally speculative, but it’s widely agreed that the warmer weather is at odds with those suffering from depression, who may feel pressured to be happy and have fun.

When we take all of the above into account, it makes sense to prioritise our wellbeing throughout the year – not just in January. We are all equipped with well-documented hormones and processes that make us feel happy. However, even though most of us are aware of how dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins contribute to our overall wellbeing and mood, we rarely do enough to improve their prevalence. Unless we have a chemical imbalance that needs treating, there are various things we can do to keep ourselves well and happy.

Here’s a handy guide on our what our happy chemicals are and how we can give them a natural boost3.

Dopamine

Definition: Dopamine functions as a neurotransmitter, which is a chemical the brain uses to send signals to other nerve cells. Dopamine has several distinct pathways – one of which is a component of reward-motivated behaviour. This means dopamine plays an active part in how happy we are.

Sources: Exercise, laughter, yoghurt, eggs, almonds, green tea, music, meditation, orgasms, and quality sleep!

Serotonin

Definition: Serotonin is a vital chemical and neurotransmitter in the human body. Believed to help regulate mood, social behaviour, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function, there are links that suggest a lack of serotonin causes depression.

Sources: Sunlight, daily 10-15 min walk (minimum), tryptophan rich foods, green tea, and your favourite music!

Oxytocin

Definition: Oxytocin is also known as the ‘love hormone!’ Released by the pituitary gland and responsible for human behaviours associated with relationships and bonding, its main function involves helping mothers with childbirth, e.g., producing contractions in labour and controlling bleeding.

Sources: Laughter with a loved one, spicy food, cuddles, sex, dancing, and play time with pets!

Endorphins

Definition: By acting on the opiate receptors in our brains, they reduce pain and boost pleasure, resulting in us feeling a sense of calm and well-being.

Sources: Sunlight, exercise, laughter, probiotics, playing an instrument, singing, and dancing!

Handy tip: Getting a massage stimulates all four processes!

So, even though the ‘January Blues’ is coming to end, taking your wellbeing seriously never should.

References

  1. NCBI. Seasonality of Suicidal Behavior. Source article: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3315262/
  2. ONS: Understanding well-being inequalities: Who has the poorest personal well-being? Source link: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/wellbeing/articles/understandingwellbeinginequalitieswhohasthepoorestpersonalwellbeing/2018-07-11
  3. Healthline.com. Happy Hormones. Source article: https://www.healthline.com/health/happy-hormone