Pop Music & Blogs as Indicators of Gross National Happiness

By Allison Bond | August 4, 2009 6:01 pm

smiley facesEvaluating the happiness of an entire society is tricky–after all, the traditional survey-based method of collecting data doesn’t work for such a huge population. But now scientists say they have come up with a way to quantify the well-being of a society: by analyzing song lyrics and blog posts for emotionally charged words, according to a study published in the Journal of Happiness Studies. Among their findings, researchers determined that bloggers in their 50s and 60s are most content, and that popular music has become increasingly less happy since the 1960s.

To evaluate the overall happiness of the public, researchers pulled data from nearly two-and-a-half million blogs and 230,000 song lyrics. With the aid of their own computers, the researchers scanned the texts for more than 1000 emotionally charged words that a 1999 psychology study had ranked on a scale from 1 (miserable) to 9 (ecstatic). “Triumphant” and “love” topped the list with average scores greater than 8.7, whereas “disgusted” was one of the lowest at 2.45. The researchers then calculated an average happiness score for each text based on the words’ scores and frequencies [ScienceNOW Daily News]. They found that although certain days of the year always show fluctuations in the blog world (Christmas and Valentine’s Day show a spike in happiness, while September 11 shows a dip in well-being), overall happiness among the bloggers since 2005 has increased about 4 percent.

The scientists also looked at patterns among the blogs based on bloggers’ demographics, finding that men and women are equally happy, but that women are more likely to write emotionally extreme words. The researchers also analyzed the emotional content of blogs by the age of the blogger, and they found a curious pattern. Teenagers, true to form, rated the lowest, with an abundance of “sick,” “hate” and “stupid” [The New York Times]. Happy words gradually increase with blogger age until their frequency begins to drop again around age 70, when the word “sick” begins to reappear.

In the study’s musical component, researchers found that songs have become increasingly negative since 1960 due to the rise of more “negative” types of music such as heavy metal. However, positivity levels have not changed within musical genres, the researchers said.

But how much can this study really tell us about our society’s happiness as a whole? “The approach is interesting, but I don’t see any evidence that the method produces a valid population-based measure of well-being” [The New York Times], said psychologist Uli Schimmack. The study’s authors admit that even though the methods evaluated only a certain segment of the population, they were intrigued by the variance in happiness within the sample. “Now, these are bloggers, and they certainly are not representative of everyone,” [co-author Peter] Dodds said. “But the pattern is very pronounced.” [The New York Times]. Researchers hope to expand the technique to encompass people around the globe, and even to make predictions, such as about the correlation between length of life and happiness.

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Image: flickr / //amy//

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Technology
  • Carter

    It irks me somewhat that the study would typify heavy metal as a “negative” type of music. I love classic heavy metal, like Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, and Judas Priest. I don’t consider myself a metalhead, nor would any who know me, but this remains my favorite genre of music. And I am most certainly not a negative person. For my age, I might rank as one of the happiest out there! This inconsistency makes me wonder how accurate using music to figure global happiness may be. Artists who write so-called “negative” music may simply be doing so to add lyrics that add excitement to an already fun music, and to (of course) sell it, not necessarily to portray sad and negative feelings of them or their listeners.

  • http://clubneko.net robot makes music

    They analyzed lyrics, not music.

  • Carter

    Robot: I know. That is why I expressly wrote about their findings in lyrics, while only relating the music and not using the music as a subject. Though, perhaps, I am an outlier. It is statistically possible.

  • http://www.LiveHappyApp.com David

    If you’re interested in a new approach to boost your happiness based on the latest positive psychology research, check out our iPhone app: Live Happy (there’s also a Free Trial version); it’s based on the work of Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of “The How of Happiness” and provides a unique method to create a personalized program to increase your happiness.

    You can also learn more about the iPhone app on our Facebook page.

  • http://www.reallymagazine.com martin g

    Readers might also be interested in a new study which looks at the lyrics of number-one songs ( over the last 50 years or so ) and correlates them with the GHTM (General Hard Times Measure ).

    Finding that when times are hard, people prefer songs with a focus on the future, and with a greater mention of social processes – more romantic too.

    And also preferably sung by someone with a large chin.

    No, really, they do . . . ( say the researchers )

    details here :

    http://www.reallymagazine.com/month_archive_68.htm#31JUL09

  • YouRang

    How about perceptions of the past? I got into trouble this Sunday by telling someone who said we had more peace before 1960 (the supposed date of removing God from public life by the courts) that her perception of the past was bullshit. (Of course it isn’t her perception, but the propaganda line of the conservatively religious movement; which is why she could parrot the insult to all blacks, indians, murdered union workers, most immigrants etc. without thinking.)

  • mike ferrell

    Wow. Some people can get grants for anything. It makes me happy to reject such pseudo-science – “happiness research”? Why not “pissed-off” research? Or “insert whatever emotion you want here” research? Putting the word “happiness” into it is pure hype.

  • Jim

    Do they consider that “sick” among teenagers is a *good* thing these days? What about the word “bad” in the 80’s. Context means a lot. Scanning for words doesn’t give you that benefit.

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