Maybe the whole world is becoming depressed. Or maybe Twitter users are just less happy than the average person. Either way, new research shows that happiness is on the decline – at least according to billions of tweets sent over the past 33 months.
A University of Vermont research paper published in the journal PLoS One tracked more than 46 billion words in nearly 4.6 billion tweets sent between September 2008 and September 2011. The researchers were interested in the tone of the tweets – whether they were positive or negative – and used more than 10,000 of the most common English words in their study.
They graded these words on a scale of 1 to 9 based on their “happiness” level: laughter scored a high 8.5, food got a 7.44, while words like vanity (4.3), greed (3.06) terrorist (1.3) existed at the bottom of the scale.
When analyzing these billions of tweets for their happiness quotient, the researchers found that overall happiness is on the decline.
Specifically, since 2009 Twitter has seen a steady decline in happy words and an increase in negative words. And, the steepest decline began at the beginning of 2011 with no signs of inching back upwards.
The researchers explain:
“Looking at the complete time series, we see that after a gradual upward trend [in average happiness] 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.”
Specific events triggered steeper drops in happiness than others on Twitter.
Osama bin Laden’s death saw the most unhappy words used on Twitter during the entire study, as words like “death” and “killed” proliferated. Natural disasters like the Chilean earthquake in February 2010 and the earthquake and tsunami in Japan in March 2011 were also very low on the happiness scale. News like the US bank bailout and the swine flu scare also created sharp drops in Twitter happiness.
And, as you’d expect, the happiest days were holidays like Christmas and New Year’s Eve as well as the weekends. They all showed a temporary spike in happy words used. Interestingly, the happiest non-recurring day during the study was April 29, 2011 – the day that Prince William and Kate Middleton were married.
The researchers do make a distinction between people’s reactions on Twitter and their overall happiness, however:
“There is an important psychological distinction between an individual’s current, experiential happiness and their longer term, reflective evaluation of their life.”
So just because someone is in rapture over the royal wedding, it doesn’t mean that they are any happier in the long run.