Sad news for those who suffer from SAD: the condition is probably a myth

    2 February 2016

    Would you rather, at this moment, be standing at a bus stop in the rain, on your way to a job that doesn’t exactly fill you with sheer molten glee, or lying on a sun lounger under a tropical sky with a cold drink in one hand and a hot squeeze in the other? Don’t tell me, I think I can guess.

    Do you then think: ‘Ooo, I’ll work really hard for a few more months and then when I get the money to go somewhere nice and hot I’ll really enjoy it!’ or do you think ‘Life’s so unfair. I bet there are people lying on sun loungers under tropical skies right now, and I’m not one of them. And it’s actually making me ill — I’ve got SAD! Right, that’s it, I can’t work!’ And so life becomes a slushy self-fulfilled prophecy.

    I’ve always been cynical about seasonal affective disorder (SAD) and now a new study — analysing data from 34,300 participants ranging in age from 18 to 99 and published in the journal Clinical Psychological Science — says it does not exist: ‘Being depressed during winter is not evidence that one is depressed because of winter.’ Using the reliable Patient Health Questionnaire Depression Scale PHQ-8, participants were asked how many times in the past fortnight they had felt symptoms of depression. By noting each person’s location and amount of sunlight exposure during the recorded timescale, doctors found no evidence that lack of rays led to bad days. Summing up, Dr Steven LoBello said: ‘Mental health professionals who treat people with depression should be concerned about their own and their patients’ accurate conceptions about the possible causes of depression… pursuit of treatments based on false causes is unlikely to lead to rapid and durable recoveries.’

    I’ve always wondered if SAD was ever diagnosed before the habit of mass travel to warmer climes kicked off, or did we just put our collective shoulder to our collective wheel and accept that rain and cold were as much a part of life as sunshine and warmth? Mark Twain’s line that ‘Comparison is the death of joy’ has rarely been so true as when applied to the SAD Squad. The knowledge that some northern-born souls have the chance to pack up their troubles and head south on a semi-permanent basis gives some self-pitiers many a sleepless night.

    It’s all very well to prefer sunshine to rain — who doesn’t? But not getting what we want does not constitute an illness. Freud got a lot wrong but when he said that people needed work and love in order to be happy, he was pretty near right, with a few exceptions — retirement after a lifetime of substantial work also counts, in my book, and there are those singular souls amongst us who are satisfied with solitude. But I think it’s fair to say that those who harp on about the weather generally have very little else going on in their lives and may be particularly lacking in the work and love departments, thus coming to see the mythical place of the sun — rather like losing weight — as some state of grace where everything now loathed about life will miraculously come right. But life doesn’t work that way; we generally have an internal thermostat of happiness which can be altered by our attitude but not by our circumstances. As one study showed, both lottery winners and recent quadriplegics generally return to their pre-life-changing level of happiness in a short period of time. To quote Crowded House, you take the weather with you.

    Thinking of the Antipodes, it’s interesting that the ceaseless flow from them to us — from Clive James to Nick Cave, taking in Germaine, Cate and Kylie — tends to be of an intellectual and/or creative nature, while the traffic from us to them tends to be… not. Coming from a big, beautiful, empty suntrap, clever Aussies often seek the dampest, edgiest, most crowded arena they can find, and usually prove to be very pleased with their choice. It’s impossible to imagine Germaine Greer or Clive James ever voluntarily going ‘home’. My friend Mei, an Australian who has lived here for two decades, says: ‘When you’ve got sunshine all the time, it’s just boring. I came here because all the culture I admired was here, and also the history thing… you can just walk across a field, and it’s not just a field, it’s where some historic battle took place! And of course the music. Cold weather makes people creative, because they can’t hang out at the beach all day.’

    Of course I have smart friends who fancy living in warmer climes, but they’re also enjoying life where they are; when it comes to actual claims of SAD, though, I can’t help thinking that these types wouldn’t be the life and soul of the party anywhere. They evoke a similar impatience in me as do the scores of bores who claim food allergies — while 30 per cent of the population believes that they have a food allergy, the actual stat is around five per cent. So many people want to be ‘special’ and can’t be bothered to work for it — even becoming a reality star takes a bit of effort — and by claiming allergies they become briefly a legend in their own gluten-intolerant, lactose-unfriendly boring old lunchtime. It’s showbiz for saps.

    In my opinion, people who have SAD aren’t sick but rather simply sad that they’re not living some lotus-eating life in the sunshine, and don’t want to admit it as people might tell them to get over it. Having had the person I loved most in all the world suffer for a decade and eventually die because of actual clinical depression, I feel that if a low mood is circumstantial, if it can be dispelled by a change of scene, or by a new dress, or by things going your way, it’s likely that what you’re feeling is not depression but lack of perspective and a surfeit of self-obsession. In which case, take your vitamin D and volunteer to do something for others less fortunate than you. You’ll cheer up in no time — unless, perhaps, you don’t want to. Because it’s not so ‘special’ being happy, is it?