Despite all the gloomy talk about winter and how dark and cold it is, the most miserable day in 2014 was April 23.
In retrospect, it doesn't appear to have been a horrible day. The Russians and Croatians traded threats, but no bullets. The Food and Drug Administration expressed misgivings about e-cigarettes. And the Twins — who were still teasing us with contender status — beat Tampa Bay in extra innings.
Nonetheless, we were collectively down in the dumps more so than on any other day of the year. At least, that's the conclusion number-crunchers reached after analyzing Internet search data.
They were exploring the hypothesis: We are what we Google.
Researchers at the Washington Post used Google Trends to track the online searches for five topics: depression, anxiety, pain, stress and fatigue. The total number of searches was collated into what the analysts branded the Daily Misery Index. The higher the index reading, the more miserable we were.
The busiest search day was that Wednesday in April. But it was not a one-day aberration. On the whole, the searches tended to spike in the spring and fall and drop in the dead of winter.
That might seem counterintuitive in Minnesota, where winter is spent hunkered down trying to outlast Mother Nature, while spring is associated with uninhibited giddiness and fall ias all about basking in the beauty of the changing foliage. But it conforms to the patterns that local mental health professionals encounter.
"Spring is especially tough on anxiety, and fall is a little more tough on depression," said Barbara Schnichels, clinical social worker and therapist, whose firm, Resilient Wellbeing, is located in Burnsville.
The exuberance that accompanies spring is beneficial for most people, but it can have the opposite effect for people who are struggling.
"For people with stable moods and not having any mental health issues, that increase in energy and light is a wonderful thing that makes us happy," said Schnichels, who is leading a session on developing resilience skills Jan. 13 at Pathways Minneapolis. "But just think about your most anxious moment, and then charge that with lots of energy. It's going to put the anxiety index into 'overwhelm.' "
Suicide rates tend to rise in the spring, said Dana Kadue, owner of Life Flow Coaching in Minneapolis. She thinks that the timing of the index's extremes — a dip at New Year's and a peak in April — mirrors natural life cycles.
"Ninety days is a very powerful cycle in people's lives; books have been written about it," she said. "At New Year's, people have hope. They make resolutions, and the year starts on a high that anything is possible. But three months later, things haven't worked out that way, and the hopeless feelings set back in."
The change of seasons often plays a role in our emotional well-being, said Mary Jo Kreitzer, founder and director of the Center for Spirituality and Healing at the University of Minnesota.
"In fall, when there's less daylight, it's very well-established that some people experience seasonal affective disorder [SAD] and that can really contribute to depression," she said. "Part of the treatment for SAD is light and getting people to have access to light."
As for depression in March, she thinks that's also tied to seasonal change.
"I have said to my husband for years that the worst month of the year in Minnesota is March," she said. The snow is melting, the ice rinks are closed and the fish houses have been pulled off the lakes, but the ground is still too wet and muddy for activities like golf or baseball. "Nature is very healing, and people in Minnesota love being outdoors, but you can't do a lot in March."
Don't mistake it for science
The Misery Index starts low in January. The numbers spike in March and April. Activity drops in the summer — although not as much as in the winter — before things start building again and reach a second peak at the end of October. That's followed by a sharp decrease through the end of December.
While the index is interesting from an anecdotal perspective, there are major shortcomings in the methodology that make it risky to extrapolate conclusions.
Christopher Ingraham, a former researcher at the Brookings Institution and Pew Research Center who correlated the data for the Washington Post, warned that as ubiquitous as Google might be, it's not a statistically accurate representation of the general population.
Plus, it's not a given that Web surfers are researching only those topics that directly apply to them.
"There was a huge spike in Google searches on 'suicide' after Robin Williams died," Kadue said. "What people Google is not always about us, about me. It's about me having a curiosity about the people and events around me."
There can be other causes for variations, too. Are we really that much less miserable in the summer, or is the drop in searches heightened by the heavy vacation schedule that results in fewer people sitting at their desks fiddling with their computers?
And no one is implying that a dramatic plummet in the number of searches done on Christmas means that the holiday blues don't exist. It just means that people aren't spending the day noodling those topics on their search engines.
That being said, Ingraham suggests that the search patterns offer some interesting food for thought for armchair social scientists.
"There were no large unexpected spikes in the data that had to be accounted for," he said. "This suggests that underlying social phenomena are driving these numbers."
Beware of Mondays
Ingraham also tallied searches by day of the week, although the results were more predictable: there are fewer of them on weekends. The exception is "pain." Those searches climb on Sunday and peak on Monday, a profile that Kreitzer believes reflects our sedentary work schedules.
"We kill ourselves on weekends," she said. "We're either weekend warriors, or we're trying to get all the household chores done. It doesn't surprise me that we hurt on Monday. Research has shown that Monday workdays have the highest rate of heart attacks."
Monday and Tuesday also are the days that searches for "stress," "anxiety" and "depression" peak. Both Kreitzer and Kadue said that data dovetail with a Gallup Poll released in June that found that 70 percent of American workers aren't engaged at work.
"The fact that the Misery Index would be higher at the start of the workweek isn't surprising," Kadue said. "It's about that loss of hope."
While the index can't be taken as scientific gospel, it can be helpful if it alerts people to their mood swings, Kreitzer said. Being aware of what is happening to you and around you is a crucial step in dealing with any sort of mood issue, she said.
"The whole self-awareness thing is so big," she said. "When I think of how to help people through the rhythms of the season, I think that being in touch with their own rhythms is important."
Or to consider changing the rhythm.
"As I looked at that index, it struck me that this might be a good time for people to check in with what they're doing and how they're spending their time," she said. "What are their goals and priorities in life? And if work is causing so much stress, is it time to examine that?"
But what about the impetus for the misery index in the first place? Is it helpful to Google topics that are bothering us, or will reading about them only make us feel worse? The answer depends on what people do with the information they uncover, Schnichels said.
"It depends on how they interpret it," she said. "How do they focus that information? Are they learning new things that are helpful to them? Are they making connections with people [who can help them]? Or are they interpreting that information to feed their misery?"
But perhaps people should change the target of the searches, she suggested. Instead of focusing on the negative, think positive.
"One of the things I really work with people on is what they pay attention to," she said. "That has a really significant impact on mood. There's a lot of benefit to creating positive experiences in your life — as well as focusing on the positive — even to get through the suffering."