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Happiness May be Down But Language Stays Positive

Happiness May be Down But Our Language Remains PositiveWhile many would say the media cover more bad news than good news, a study finds that while the stories may be negative, the words used are generally positive.

Muckraking and sensational journalism have been a part of the media landscape for well over 100 years. This may have contributed to the general perception that most news is bad news, and the worst news gets the big story on the front page.

So one might expect the New York Times to contain, on average, more negative and unhappy types of words — like “war,” “ funeral,” “cancer,” “murder” — than positive, happy ones, like “love,” “peace” and “hero.”

Same with Twitter. A popular image of what people tweet about may contain a lot of complaints about bad days, worse coffee, busted relationships and lousy sitcoms.

Again, it might be reasonable to guess that a giant bag containing all the words from the world’s tweets — on average — would be more negative and unhappy than positive and happy.

However, researchers found just the opposite.

“English, it turns out, is strongly biased toward being positive,” said Peter Dodds, Ph.D., an applied mathematician at the University of Vermont.

The study, “Positivity of the English Language,” is found in the current issue of the journal PLoS ONE.

This new study complements and/or provides a contrast to an earlier study by the same group of researchers that found, in a review of Twitter posts, that average global happiness has been dropping for the past two years.

Combined, the two studies show that short-term average happiness has dropped — against the backdrop of the long-term fundamental positivity of the English language.

In the new study, Dodds and his colleagues gathered billions of words from four sources: 20 years of the New York Times, the Google Books Project (with millions of titles going back to 1520), Twitter and a half-century of music lyrics.

“The big surprise is that in each of these four sources it’s the same,” said Dodds. “We looked at the top 5,000 words in each, in terms of frequency, and in all of those words you see a preponderance of happier words.”

Or, as they write in their study, “a positivity bias is universal,” both for very common words and less common ones and across sources as diverse as tweets, lyrics and British literature.

Why is this? “It’s not to say that everything is fine and happy,” Dodds said. “It’s just that language is social.”

Social scientists believe the findings refute traditional economic theory which suggests people are inherently and rationally selfish. Scientist now believe the data shows that we are really a pro-social storytelling species.

Experts believe that as language emerged and evolved over the last million years, positive words, it seems, have been more widely and deeply ingrained into our communications than negative ones.

If you want to remain in a social contract with other people, you need to be positive, say the authors.

Even after a depressing story or event, we spin things so that, “on average, there’s always a net happiness to language.”

Both the Twitter study and the language study used data obtained from a service from Amazon called Mechanical Turk.

On this website, the UVM researchers paid a group of volunteers to rate, from one to nine, their sense of the “happiness” — the emotional temperature — of the 10,222 most common words gathered from the four sources.

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 research team then took these scores and applied them to the huge pools of words they collected.

Unlike some other studies — with smaller samples or that elicited strong emotional words from volunteers — the new study, based solely on frequency of use, found that “positive words strongly outnumber negative words overall.”

This seems to lend support to the so-called Pollyanna Principle, put forth in 1969, that argues for a universal human tendency to use positive words more often, easily and in more ways than negative words.

Of course, most people would rank some words, like “the,” with the same score: a neutral 5. Other words, like “pregnancy,” have a wide spread, with some people ranking it high and others low.

At the top of this list of words that elicited strongly divergent feelings: “profanities, alcohol and tobacco, religion, both capitalism and socialism, sex, marriage, fast foods, climate, and cultural phenomena such as the Beatles, the iPhone, and zombies,” the researchers write.

“A lot of these words — the neutral words or ones that have big standard deviations — get washed out when we use them as a measure,” Dodds said. Instead, the trends he and his team have observed are driven by the bulk of English words tending to be happy.

If we think of words as atoms and sentences as molecules that combine to form a whole text, “we’re looking at atoms,” said Dodds.

“A lot of news is bad,” he said, and short-term happiness may rise and and fall like the cycles of the economy, “but the atoms of the story — of language — are, overall, on the positive side.”

Source: University of Vermont

Man talking photo by shutterstock.

Happiness May be Down But Language Stays Positive

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Happiness May be Down But Language Stays Positive. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 13 Jan 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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