Why is January so Dang Long? According to Science

Henry Ampey
4 min readJan 15, 2023
A stressed person thinking about the remaining 69 days in January. Photo by Gift Habeshaw on Unsplash

Happy New Year

We are fifteen days into the new year, so why does it feel like we said those three words 4 weeks ago? You know the gist, you have seen the memes. According to popular decree, January is inarguably the longest month of the year. This has some logic to it. The month does have the most days a month can have (31 days), but it isn’t the only month (Sing the song and you’ll remember the rest). This is the only metric that supports “January is way too long”. Why do we then collectively believe in the “January Purgatory”? It’s a tricky concept known as time perception.

Time perception is basically our internal clock that experiences and interprets time. We all have it but just like our fingerprints, no two people have the same time perception. Different factors can affect time perception. Caffeine has been shown to make time feel faster and there are studies where people have claimed that time felt longer after watching a scary movie.

Now, how does time perception relate to the “January Purgatory”?

Think about what came before: December, the month of holidays, work breaks, and time spent with loved ones. December is typically a packed month, there’s no other month with as many international holidays. Like all good things, December always ends. Once all the “fun” goes with it, you’re left with January and we all know what January is about: Work, work, and work. When compared with the breezy fun times of December, you can’t help but feel each passing second as you wade through the month.

Counting the seconds like grains of sand. Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

Do you know the saying “Time flies when you’re having fun”?

It turns out this has some scientific precedent. It can be explained by the “dopamine clock hypothesis”, which states that higher levels of dopamine make time feel like it’s going quicker. Dopamine is the hormone released by the brain that’s stimulated by pleasure, satisfaction, accomplishment, etc. Newstatesman.com reported a study that concluded that dopamine is released frequently throughout the months of November and December due to all the events surrounding the holidays. This directly links “having fun” with time feeling quicker than normal. This is the current scientific belief but there is still a lot to be discovered on the topic.

If fun and pleasure have an effect on how we perceive time, it’s safe to assume that other human experiences can have different effects on time perception. Remember the study about scary movies making time feel longer, the researchers concluded that fear could slow down how we perceive time. This directly supports the “January Purgatory” theory. After the holiday binge, the average person is usually cash-strapped in the first month of the year. This can create feelings of uncertainty. The very concept of a new year also adds to this uncertainty. Thoughts of the previous year’s failures, resolutions for the new year, and whether we can achieve them. This all creates fear that can slow us and our time perception down.

We believe in a thing and therefore, it exists??

One more concept that contributes to the “January Purgatory” theory is probably the most intriguing and difficult-to-prove concept: January feels like the longest month because we believe it is the longest month. When a large portion of humanity believes in a particular concept, that idea can become almost indistinguishable from reality. It is known as “imagined reality” and I think it’s one of the most remarkable and weirdest things we can do. Here’s a perfect example. Do you know Bugs Bunny?

Bugs being a bun. Source: Tenor

I’d like to believe we all know who he is. What is the name of his show? “Looney Tunes” or “Looney Toons”? For some (myself included), I thought it was “toons" (because... cartoons), but it has always been “tunes." This is the most popular version of an imagined reality called “the Mandela Effect", a collective belief that an event or concept is one thing when it is actually another. The name actually comes from the very popular belief in the 1980s that Nelson Mandela had died during his time in prison. Mandela would become his country’s president after this. He passed away in 2013. Imagined realities are believed to be so powerful that some scholars believe that the very concept of God only exists because humanity collectively believes that there has to be a higher being ruling over us.

This is technically an imagined reality because who decided that colourful paper was valuable? Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

If science backs the existence of “January Purgatory”, how can we escape it? I think all we can do is live with it. Regardless of how you feel about the month, it will come and go as all the other Januarys you have lived through. Forget about how long the month feels and focus on what you can do with it. The year is still young. More days and months will come. Once you’re actively chasing something, January will fade quicker than you can feel it.

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Henry Ampey

Putting ‘pen’ to ‘paper’ for my thoughts and ideas about human nature, experiences, society and the world we live in today.