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Those of you who know me well - and any of you who have assiduously read my reviews know me as well as anybody, which may be a poor reward for all the effort but I can't help that - know that for a tired old cynic I am strangely susceptible to irrational optimism and groundless good cheer. I am one of those people who go through life grinning or even chuckling for no obvious reason, causing those sitting nearby in public places to look askance and change their seats as soon as they can discreetly do so.
As summer darkens into autumn, therefore, and the human spirit here in the northern hemisphere spirals down towards its customary seasonal nadir, I feel it incumbent upon me as a customarily cheerful person to try to lighten the mood.
Why, you may have wondered as you read the preceding paragraph, should the mood be darkening, just because autumn is coming on? What is this supposed seasonal nadir?
The -ologists who study such things (psychologists, sociologists, climatologists - some diabolical mixture of the three?) claim to have discovered a condition that they call Seasonal Affective Disorder. They call it that in order to produce the catchy acronym SAD, and thereby publicise their dismal discovery, which one would think best kept hidden.
According to them, we humans are so moody and suggestible that the mere onset of shorter days and cooler temperatures induces mild depression in us, irrespective of what else is going on. We may, they say, find true love or win the lottery, but if winter is approaching we'll still feel miserable, unless of course we use the lottery winnings to whisk the true love away to the southern hemisphere, where it will be spring and therefore intrinsically more joyful.
This alleged SAD syndrome has been blamed for all sorts of disheartening things from suicide rates to stock market crashes, so we have to take the idea seriously, which is a very different thing from saying we have to accept it at face value. Myself, I find it hard to accept it at face value, if only because of my personal preferences.
Autumn seems to me to be a glorious season, full of rich colours and misty mellow fruitfulness, as any Keats will tell you. Its mood music may be reflective, but to me it's never sad. Winter doesn't depress me either. Nothing is more uplifting than to walk on a clear day through a wintry landscape; nothing is cosier than a glowing fireside on a frosty night.
For the record, I love spring too and find even summer tolerable, despite
Pictures of What Has Made You Happy Recently
A splash of autumn colour to brighten the review
the heat. But this piece is not just about my own seasonal preferences, which could just be the result of my eccentricity. This piece was prompted by the notion of SAD, my scepticism as to its prevalence and an idea as to how it might be put to the test. *
To test the SAD hypothesis, without going to the disproportionate expense of conducting a serious piece of reliable research, I have looked at seasonal variations in different kinds of opinion posted in the Member Picks section of the Ciao Café.
I started out with the plausible assumption that people were more likely to write a review on, say, "10 Things that Make Me Happy" when they actually were feeling happy, and that if the SAD syndrome really does exert its downward pressure on our moods, the posting of such reviews would be found to decline in the latter half of the year, to bounce back in the spring.
So when were reviews on this happy topic posted? We find:
Spring (March, April, May): 30 Summer (June, July, August): 46 Autumn (September, October, November): 57 Winter (December, January, February): 40 Whole year total: 173
There is a clear pattern, is there not? People appear to start wanting to write about being happy through summer, a desire that grows to reach a high point in autumn. The inclination then drops off gradually through the depths of winter and reaches a low point in spring, when people don't seem to find much happiness to write about at all.
Of course, 173 is a not a very large sample. To make it a little more robust, I added in the numbers for three other 'happy' topics - "What has Made You Happy Recently", "Member Advice on Happiness", and "The Best Year of My Life". This produced the following totals:
This confirmed the pattern. The highest individual months, incidentally, were August and October. The fact that October was up among the leaders seemed to me to prove that the good mood really did extend until late in the year; if it had been September one would have worried that it was just a slow dimming of the summer glow. December, incidentally, also did well, though whether that suggests a slow dimming of the autumn glow or a seasonal uplift from Christmas I wouldn’t care to speculate.
What it did seem to imply is that people are far from SAD in autumn, though they slowly become so as the post-Christmas winter wears on, and become even more so in spring, a season that, from the point of view of human mood, appears to be the pits. We then recover and perk up, it seems, once summer is firmly established, in anticipation of the joyful uplift of the fall.
Although satisfying to me from my "autumn isn't depressing" viewpoint, these findings were in other ways contrary even to my expectations. I certainly had not anticipated that the human mood would seem so negative in spring. So I decided it would be worth reviewing the question from the opposite perspective.
For an opposite perspective, I looked for topics that implied sadness or disgruntlement. Interestingly, no direct opposites of the happy topics (such as "10 Things that have Made me Unhappy" or "The Worst Year of my Life") exist on Ciao. One wonders why not, but rather than waste a lot of time wondering, I took another tack instead. As a surrogate I selected the following for the comparison:
"10 Things I Hate about the World Today." "10 Things I Hate Doing." "10 Things that Really Annoy Me." "10 Most Annoying Sayings."
I would accept that this choice is not exactly like-for-like, but it is the nearest available on Ciao. Here we are measuring hatred and annoyance rather than unhappiness - but we are at least measuring a negative mood to contrast with the positive one examined earlier. These are the results:
Well, I was in search of surprises, but you could have knocked me down with a sprig of cherry blossom. Look at the bile and tetchiness that seems to fill our hearts in spring! What's more, the supposedly "merry" month of May is the most disgruntled of them all, with April a close second – so the phenomenon isn’t just a wintry hangover lasting into March. Once the late spring months have taken the top two places on the rostrum of hatred and annoyance, we calm down a little through summer and autumn, though it is not until winter that we come closest to recovering our equanimity – the last thing I for one would have expected. Maybe it’s just too cold for us to get worked up about anything.
It could, of course, be argued that there are fashions in the writing of Member Pick topics in the Ciao Café, whereby one member writes on a particular topic and others follow, and that this in itself could produce a seasonal pattern irrespective of mood. But I have tried to nullify any such effect by choosing four topics rather than just one on each side of the mood divide, and, in any case, one would have to ask why such fads take hold at the times they do. Surely there is a case for believing that in itself to be a function of seasonal sentiment.
Glad as I am to find that autumn does well, I find it hard to explain why spring does so badly. Maybe the rise in hormonal levels in spring that classically makes "a young man's fancy turn to love" (not to mention the fancy of men not quite so young) (nor that of women of all ages) also leads to the kind of emotional volatility that would result in sudden outbursts. But in that case one would expect the incidence of all emotive reviews to rise, positive as well as negative, which was not the case.
Maybe it's to do with expectations. If you're expecting to be happy in the spring, and find you're not, the disappointment may provoke you to write about it in a way in which an equivalent despondency in autumn, being more likely to be anticipated, would not.
Maybe. Maybe I'm speculating. I do not have a convincing explanation for the phenomenon observed above. I simply offer it for your interest and puzzlement. Any explanations you may have will be gratefully received and maybe even debated if I can think of anything constructive in response.
The other thing that struck me from this analysis is that people seem to be so much readier to write about negative emotions than positive ones, at any time of year. Nearly three times as ready, if the eight sample topics are any guide. Now that really is saddening.As a small gesture of defiance in the face of such sadness, I am posting this under "What has Made You Happy Recently," thereby increasing the total of reviews on the positive side of the balance, if only by one. Before you start fingering your Off Topic button in a menacing manner, let me dwell for a moment on the relevance of my doing so:
The onset of autumn makes me happy, because it is a season I love.
Finding out that other people do not necessarily find autumn depressing - to judge from its positive score in my little analysis - makes me happy too.
And posting this review in September, thereby improving still further the autumn score, will make me happier still.