The Hedonometer Shows We Like Happy Talk

By Heather Ramsey on Tuesday, May 5, 2015
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“I shall take the heart . . . for brains do not make one happy, and happiness is the best thing in the world.” —The Tinman, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

In A Nutshell

Based on a study in 1969, researchers from the University of Illinois proposed the controversial “Pollyanna hypothesis,” the theory that people prefer to express their feelings in positive words. Recently, a different group of scientists used Big Data to show that many languages themselves are skewed toward positive talk—even the ones that created dark Russian novels and the disaster stories we often read in the mainstream media. To track our happy talk on a global basis, researchers have even created a happiness meter called a “hedonometer.”

The Whole Bushel

Based on a small study in 1969, psychologists from the University of Illinois proposed the controversial “Pollyanna hypothesis,” the theory that people prefer to express their feelings in positive words. Recently, a different group of researchers from the University of Vermont and the MITRE Corporation tried a larger-scale statistical approach to see if the Pollyanna hypothesis holds up. Using Big Data, a huge set of billions of words in their native context, they believe their study confirms the overall conclusion of the Pollyanna hypothesis. However, they go beyond the initial study to compare happiness between different populations and over time for a specific population depending on current events.

They used words from 24 sources throughout the world such as social media, websites, books, television, news articles, music lyrics, and even movie subtitles. The researchers analyzed approximately 10,000 of the words used most often in each of 10 languages: Arabic, Brazilian Portuguese, Chinese, English, French, German, Indonesian, Korean, Russian, and Spanish. Native speakers rated each of the 10,000 words in their language on a happiness scale from 1 (most negative) to 9 (most positive). In the English language, a neutral word like “the” scored 4.98 while a positive word like “laughter” scored 8.50 and a negative word like “terrorist” scored 1.30.

Regardless of language or medium, the scientists found that people use more positive words than negative ones. However, some languages were more positive than others. Spanish was the happiest language. Next happiest was Brazilian Portuguese, followed by English, German, French, Indonesian, Russian, Arabic, and Korean. The least happy language was Chinese.

To track our happy talk on a global basis, the researchers have even created a happiness meter called a “hedonometer.” It’s a statistical computer algorithm that attempts to measure both the happiness of large groups of people in real time and the happiness expressed in large amounts of offline text like books. They’ve used the hedonometer on Twitter posts in the English language to measure how global happiness changes from day to day depending on world events. For example, there was a huge drop in happiness when the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack occurred in Paris. However, happiness levels bounced back over the next three days.

The hedonometer can also compare levels of happiness between US states and cities. For example, the scientists found that Vermont is the most positive state, while Louisiana is the most negative. For cities, Boulder, Colorado, is happiest while Racine, Wisconsin, is saddest. The researchers hope to get their hedonometer working in other languages and with other sources soon.

For now, they have a few different theories to explain our relentless group happiness, even in the face of negative events like the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks. It may show that we have far more good things occurring in our lives than bad things, so we’re more positive overall. Or maybe we try to remain positive to cope with negative events and that’s reflected in our language. Another possibility is that we tend to remember the positive in our lives and downplay negative memories. Finally, it may be that we care what people think about us, so we remain upbeat to be more appealing to others.

Show Me The Proof

Tech Times: Happy Language? Happiest Language? Check Them Out
University of Vermont: F-Bombs Notwithstanding, All Languages Skew Toward Happiness
NY Times: According to the Words, the News Is Actually Good
Hedonometer.org