Changing our clocks makes us sadder and sicker

Over the last few days, 2020 got a little darker – and not just because of Alex Trebek’s passing or the American president’s refusal to concede a free and fair election. The event that quite literally cast a shadow over daily life was the end of daylight saving time, which has consigned most of the country to total darkness by 5 p.m. for the next few months.

The yearly tradition of setting our clocks back an hour in the fall is almost universally recognized as a harbinger of cold weather and short days. But the sun setting so early affects us beyond portending the onset of winter: it makes us sadder and sicker. And during a brutal pandemic, the last thing we need is to be sadder and sicker.

The sun setting an hour earlier has been tied to an increase in depression and anxiety, especially in people who have those conditions already. Even for those without preexisting mental health diagnoses, reduced daylight tends to make people generally less joyous and more apathetic. The x-factor in 2020 is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has set off its own mental health crisis. Rates of depression and anxiety have skyrocketed since March, and U.S. public health officials fear that the end of daylight saving time may pour gas on the flame.

The original intent of daylight saving time was valid – the government wanted to save fuel during World War I by optimizing the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. to make the most use of daylight. While that may have reduced energy consumption at the time, any positive effect today is nonexistent.

Daylight saving time may even have a death toll – rates of heart attack and stroke tend to increase after the time change, as do traffic accidents. Changing the clocks forward or back one hour twice a year may also lower our immunity to disease. Making people more susceptible to illness at a societal level should probably be avoided in general – but once again, the pandemic adds a fresh kicker to existing downsides of the time change. It goes without saying that lowering immunity to disease should be avoided during a pandemic that has sickened 10 million people. The health crisis is spreading virtually unchecked across the globe, and no effort should be spared in fighting it.

There is a fairly clear solution to the problem. Congress has the power to change daylight saving time – which it did as recently as 2005 – or eliminate it entirely. There is some debate about whether daylight saving time should be abolished or made permanent – essentially, the former would make it lighter in the mornings, while the latter would make it lighter in the evenings. In either case, the public would enjoy tangible benefits over the system in place right now. And while the discussion about whether to extend or abolish has not quite entered the public consciousness, opinion polls show broad support for getting rid of the twice-yearly clock change.

Here’s some free advice to an incoming government facing down a health crisis and widespread public disdain: tackling this issue is a no-brainer.

Andrew Sugrue, a junior majoring in political communication, is the contributing opinions editor.

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