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More on Seasonal Affective Disorder as a Possible Folk Myth

david_myers
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In an earlier blog post, I reported on an analysis of 34,000+ Americans’ health interviews with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). To my astonishment, Megan Traffanstedt, Sheila Mehta, and Steven LoBello found no evidence that depression rises in wintertime, or that wintertime depression is greater in higher latitudes, in cloudy rather than sunny communities, or on cloudy days. Moreover, they reported, even the wintertime “dark period” in northern Norway and Iceland is unaccompanied by increased depression.

Given the effectiveness of light therapy and the acceptance of major depressive disorder “with seasonal pattern” (DSM-5), I suspected that we have not heard the last word on this. Indeed, criticism (here and here) and rebuttals (here and here) have already appeared.

Reading Seth Stephens-Davidowitz’s wonderful new book on big data mining inspired me to wonder if Google depression-related searches increase during wintertime. (To replicate the CDC result, I focused on the United States, though further replications with Canada and the UK yielded the same results.)

First, I needed to confirm that Google Trends does reveal seasonally-related interests. Would searches for “basketball” surge in winter and peak during March Madness? Indeed, they do:288980_Sept 17 Seasonal 1.png

We know that Google searches also reveal seasonal trends in physical illnesses. And sure enough, “flu” searches increase during the winter months.

288981_Sept 17 Seasonal 2.png

So, do searches for “depression” (mood-related) and “sad” similarly surge during wintertime? Nope, after a summer dip, they remain steady from mid-September through May:

288982_Sept 17 Seasonal 3.png

Ditto for Google entries for “I am depressed” and “I am sad.”

288983_Sept 17 Seasonal 4.png

My surprise at the disconfirmation of what I have taught—that wintertime depression is widespread—is like that experienced by my favorite detective, Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple: “It wasn’t what I expected. But facts are facts, and if one is proved to be wrong, one must just be humble about it and start again.” 

[Note to teachers: you can generate these data in class, in real time, via Trends.Google.com.]

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).