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More on Seasonal Affective Disorder as a Possible Folk Myth

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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 received his psychology Ph.D. from the University of Iowa. He has spent his career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has taught dozens of introductory psychology sections. Hope College students have invited him to be their commencement speaker and voted him "outstanding professor." His research and writings have been recognized by the Gordon Allport Intergroup Relations Prize, by a 2010 Honored Scientist award from the Federation of Associations in Behavioral & Brain Sciences, by a 2010 Award for Service on Behalf of Personality and Social Psychology, by a 2013 Presidential Citation from APA Division 2, and by three dozen honorary doctorates. With support from National Science Foundation grants, Myers' scientific articles have appeared in three dozen scientific periodicals, including Science, American Scientist, Psychological Science, and the American Psychologist. In addition to his scholarly writing and his textbooks for introductory and social psychology, he also digests psychological science for the general public. His writings have appeared in four dozen magazines, from Today's Education to Scientific American. 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). For his leadership, he received an American Academy of Audiology Presidential Award in 2011, and the Hearing Loss Association of America Walter T. Ridder Award in 2012. He bikes to work year-round and plays daily pick-up basketball. David and Carol Myers have raised two sons and a daughter, and have one granddaughter to whom he dedicates the Third Edition of Psychology in Everyday Life.