Using Twitter, a team of scientists from the University of Vermont has created a happiness graph, which shows happiness has fallen over the last few years.
“After a gradual upward trend that ran from January to April 2009, the overall time series has shown a gradual downward trend, accelerating somewhat over the first half of 2011,” the researchers write in the Dec. 7 issue of the journal PLoS ONE.
“It appears that happiness is going down,” said Peter Dodds, an applied mathematician at UVM and the lead author on the new study.
How does he know this? From Twitter. For three years, he and his colleagues collected more than 46 billion words written in tweets by 63 million Twitter users around the globe.
These billions of words used to express what people are feeling create a view of the relative mood of large groups, the researchers say.
Words used included everything from “the” to “pancakes” to “suicide.” To get a sense of the emotional gist of various words, the researchers used a service from Amazon called Mechanical Turk. On this website, they paid a group of volunteers to rate, from one to nine, their sense of the “happiness” — the emotional temperature — of the 10,000 most common words in English. Averaging their scores, the volunteers rated, for example, “laughter” at 8.50, “food” 7.44, “truck” 5.48, “greed” 3.06 and “terrorist” 1.30.
The Vermont team then took these scores and applied them to the billions of words they collected from Twitter. Because these tweets each have a date and time, and, sometimes, other demographic information — like location — they show changing patterns of word use that provide insights into the way groups of people are feeling, the researchers note.
The new approach lets the researchers measure happiness at different times and by geography — and over the last three years, these patterns of word use show a drop in average happiness, they say.
Or at least it shows a drop in happiness for those who use Twitter, they add. “It does skew toward younger people and people with smartphones and so on — but Twitter is nearly universal now,” Dodds said. “Every demographic is represented.
“Twitter is a signal, just like looking at the words in the New York Times or Google Books,” he continued, adding these sources are also being explored in related studies. “They’re all a sample. Indeed, everything we say or write is a distortion of what goes on inside our head.”
The researchers claim their new approach provides a “powerful sense of the rising and falling pulse of human feelings.”
“Individual happiness is a fundamental societal metric,” the researchers write in their study, noting that the “ultimate goal of much public policy is to improve and protect happiness.”
But measuring happiness has been exceedingly difficult by traditional means, like self-reporting in social science surveys, they said, noting that people often don’t tell the truth in surveys and the sample sizes are small.
This means efforts to measure happiness have been “overshadowed by more readily quantifiable economic indicators such as gross domestic product,” the researchers said.
The new approach lets the UVM researchers almost instantaneously look over the “collective shoulder of society,” Dodds said.
“We get a sense of the aggregate expressions of millions of people, while they are communicating in a more natural way,” adds Chris Danforth, a mathematician and a co-author of the study.
This opens the possibility of taking regular measures of happiness in near real-time — measurements that could have applications in public policy, marketing and other fields, the researchers claim.
The study describes a clear weekly happiness signal “with the peak generally occurring over the weekend, and the nadir on Monday and Tuesday,” they write. And over each day happiness seems to drop from morning to night. “It’s part of the general unraveling of the mind that happens over the course of the day,” said Dodds.
A long-term graph compiled by the researchers shows an overall drop in happiness, with various ups and downs clearly visible. While the strongest up-trending days are holidays like Christmas and Valentine’s Day, “all the most negative days are shocks from outside people’s routines,” Dodds said. Clear drops can be seen with the spread of swine flu, announcement of the U.S. economic bailout, the tsunami in Japan, and even the death of actor Patrick Swayze.
“In measuring happiness, we construct a tunable, real-time, remote sensing, and non-invasive, text-based hedonometer,” the Vermont scientists write. In plain terms? It’s a happiness sensor.
Right now the sensor is only available to the researchers, but the researchers have in mind a tool that could go “on the dashboard” of policy makers, according to Dodds. Or, on a real estate website for people exploring communities into which they might move, or, simply, “if someone is flying in a plane they could look at this dashboard and see how the city below them is feeling,” he said.
The researchers are quick to add that feelings change quickly and the nature of happiness is one of the most complex, profound issues of human experience.
“There is an important psychological distinction between an individual’s current, experiential happiness and their longer term, reflective evaluation of their life,” they write in the study, “and in using Twitter, our approach is tuned to the former kind.”
“By measuring happiness, we’re not saying that maximizing happiness is the goal of society,” Dodds concludes. “It might well be that we need to have some persistent degree of grumpiness for cultures to flourish.”
Source: University of Vermont