The mood of cyberspace has been probed by researchers who have found that Election Day, Nov. 4, 2008, was the happiest day in the past four years among 2.3 million bloggers, while the day Michael Jackson died was one of their unhappiest.
Insights into whether individuals are happy, sad, proud or mad are becoming increasingly available on the Internet. And the blog can be read as the new diary. This growing public dataset is a treasure trove for researchers struggling to find a better way to measure happiness, said Chris Danforth, a computer scientist at the University of Vermont. At least among bloggers.
"They think they are communicating with friends," Danforth, the study’s coauthor and a computer scientist at the University of Vermont, said in a statement. “We're just looking over their shoulders."
In this way—analyzing the content of writers’ blogs—Danforth and Peter Dodds, a mathematician also at the university, could observe people in a more natural environment than previous happiness studies, which typically involved questionnaires filled with self-reported feelings that can be misrepresented or recalled inaccurately. While blog writers tend to be younger and more educated than the general population, previous studies have shown that they split gender evenly and span the races.
The researchers analyzed the words in nearly 10 million first-person sentences that contained the word “feel”—all posted over the last four years in 2.3 million worldwide blogs. An overall score ranging from 1 to 9 was applied to each sentence, based on a weighted average of the perceived happiness of each key word. (Participants in an earlier study ranked more than 1,000 words on this “happy-unhappy” scale.) “I feel triumphant” would, for example, receive an 8.87. Replace the positive word with “disgusted,” and the score would plummet to 2.45. Or, for the more adventurous blogger, “I feel that paradise is pancakes” would earn an averaged score of 7.4.
Use of the highly rated “proud” spiked on Election Day 2008.
"That was the biggest deviation in the last four years," Danforth said. "To have 'proud' be the word that moves the needle is remarkable." At the other extreme, sad sentences filled blogs on June 25, 2009, as word spread of Michael Jackson’s death.
Danforth and Dodd have also applied their methods to song lyrics, speeches and Twitter messages. The latter, Dodd notes, provides a “more immediate measure" of "patterns of happiness.” And others are seeking out further ways to keep tabs on electronically expressed emotions: a new iPhone application developed by a Harvard psychologist allows users to track their mood.
The question remains whether this improved self-awareness will lead to any increases in happiness. But most everyone would probably smile at that thought, including the King of Pop when he was still singing for us: “Let Sadness see what Happy does; Let Happy be where Sadness was.”
The study was published last week in the Journal of Happiness Studies.
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