True or false: During the holidays, people suffer unusually high rates of depression.
This much-repeated statement is false. In fact, the opposite is true.
In an earlier article, I reported that Google searches for “depression” are the lowest on Christmas and the days surrounding it. Over Christmas week, searches for “depression” are 10 to 20 percent below average, which is a highly significant difference. But it’s not just depression that drops. Searches for “anxiety” and “suicide” plummet during the holiday season.
I am not sure what it says about me, but I have chosen to spend the early part of the holiday season analyzing publicly available Google data. I am not alone in this obsession. Recently, Christopher Ingraham of The Washington Post reported that his 2014 “misery index,” based on a variety of Google searches, was lowest on Christmas.
If you think that the phenomenon of Christmas uplift is just a quirk of a new, funky data set, consider Gallup surveys. I downloaded four years of Gallup mood data. On average, Americans report substantially elevated levels of happiness and decreased levels of stress on Christmas, New Year’s and the surrounding days. Also contrary to popular belief, suicides drop around the holidays.
This does not mean the holidays are a time of uncomplicated joy for everyone. But by studying the patterns made by millions of Google searches, we can get a remarkably detailed view not only of how our thoughts and emotions change around the holidays, but of how they ebb and flow throughout the year.
Consider searches related to “loneliness.” These searches mostly consist of people looking for quotations or song lyrics about loneliness, which might be comforting to the lonely. Dec. 25 is the eighth-highest day for loneliness searches. First and second are Feb. 14 and Feb. 15.
Even more interesting is the pattern of “divorce” searches. These generally show only a small amount of seasonality, but there is a notable drop in the run-up to Christmas and a significant rise in the 10 days following Christmas.
What explains the post-Christmas surge of interest in divorce? Google searches for other terms help make that clear. First, Christmas allows for some reflection about family life. Searches for “dysfunctional family” reach their highest point every year around Christmas. Searches that include the word “hate” and a family member — “mom,” “dad,” “husband” or “wife,” for example — also rise on and around Christmas.
Second, whether consciously or subconsciously, people delay bad events until after the holidays. Dec. 26 is the date with the highest search rate for “doctor,” following a dip leading up to the holidays. Our bodies even somehow manage to delay trouble: Health researchers previously found a 33 percent increase in heart attacks in the four days after Christmas.
Less surprisingly, “diet” searches rise after Christmas. The pattern of “diet” searches through the calendar year is more interesting. They hit their maximum values in the days immediately after New Year’s, as anyone who has ever gone to Weight Watchers knows; they are relatively stable from February through June; and they drop from August through Christmas.
Google data suggest that Christmas works as an antidepressant through much of the world. Generally, the larger the Christian population, the more powerful the effect. In Poland and Brazil, two countries with larger Christian majorities than the United States, the depression declines around Christmas are larger than they are in the United States.
Israel, notably, has no dip in depression around Christmas.
Does this mean that Christmas is just another day for Jewish people worldwide? Nope. Google data present definitive evidence that, at least for Jews in North America, there is one way Christmas differs from all other days. On all other days, we show great culinary diversity. On this day, we eat Chinese food: Google searches for “Chinese restaurant” rise 100 percent in New York City and Toronto on Dec. 25.
Are people naughtier or nicer around Christmas? One data point in favor of Christmas naughtiness comes from searches for jokes. On Christmas, searches for “clean jokes” are below average, while searches for “dirty jokes” reach the highest level of the year.
But the bulk of the evidence actually suggests that people are nicer on Christmas. Many Americans certainly take the religious aspect of Christmas seriously: On Dec. 25, “Bible” searches are 10 percent higher than average.
And, jokes aside, most raunchy searches dip on Christmas. Take searches for “porn.” Such searches tend to rise whenever people are off work and out of school. “Porn” searches are 30 percent higher on weekends than weekdays, highest in the summer months and soar on most holidays, hitting their highest level on July 4. But on Christmas, “porn” searches are 15 percent lower than on surrounding days and 30 percent lower than they are on an average weekend.
Searches for “cocaine,” “weed,” “Viagra” and “condoms” are at or near their lowest levels on and around Christmas. We cannot know for sure that these searches correlate with actual behavior, but it seems a pretty safe bet that so many fewer searches about drugs and sex around Christmas indicate that fewer people are using drugs and coupling up.
But Google data also give us new evidence of what happens when people focus on nice activities and abstain from naughty ones: The week of Christmas has the most Google searches complaining of boredom.
After all this PG behavior, the country is definitely ready to let loose over New Year’s. Dec. 31 is the date with the highest searches for “condoms.” This matches condom sales, which peak on Dec. 31, followed by July 4 and Feb. 14.
But even the epic condom purchases on New Year’s Eve fall short of eventual demand. Jan. 1 is the day of the year with the most searches for the morning-after pill.
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is an economist and a contributing opinion writer.