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August 24th, 2009
12:42 PM ET

How do we find life's benchmark?

By Akash Goel
CNN Medical News Intern

Happiness is perhaps the most fundamental pursuit of human nature. If happiness does indeed serve as life's benchmark, shouldn't there be an adequate way to measure a nation's collective emotional health? Peter Dodds and Chris Danforth, two researchers from the University of Vermont, think so.

They are combining traditional mathematics with computer assisted data mining to create what they call a digital "hedonometer." The team analyzed nearly 10 million sentences gathered from 2.3 million blogs using the site wefeelfine.org beginning with the words "I feel" or "I am feeling." The team also examined written cultural artifacts such as song lyrics since the ’60s. They then numerically assigned a happiness score to the statements based on previously derived metrics from linguistic studies.

According to their methods, last year’s Election Day was the happiest in four years, and the day of Michael Jackson's death was one of the unhappiest.

"What we hope is that the signals picked up by our ‘hedonometer' will become of the dashboard of indicators we use in making public policy, business decisions, and so on." said Dodds, professor of mathematics and lead researcher of the study.

"While financial indices such as GDP, the many stock market numbers, consumer confidence, unemployment rates, etc., are all important and useful, we think there's great merit in measuring a more human aspect of society: our collective mood."

They hope their methods will serve as a novel and real-time canvassing tool to access the way events and policy decisions affect our national consciousness. Current methods, which are largely survey based, are limited by sample size and bias–people tend to misreport their feelings in research settings.

"When we directly ask people how they're feeling, we have naturally complicated their response," explained Dodd. "People might reasonably wonder why you're asking them these questions and what sort of response is expected."

What is attractive about this research is that their data streams are unfettered and unfiltered. They are also able to mine Web-scale data sets, an output of millions of bloggers.

While these mega data sets are the study’s strength, they may also be its Achilles’ heel. The team seems to be making broad observations about a nation’s emotions based on text from bloggers, a somewhat homogenous demographic. For example, the study automatically excludes the emotional states of people who don’t have access to a computer.

Dodd acknowledges that although bloggers tend to be younger and more highly educated than average, they are reasonably reflective of ethnic diversity. This demographic “selection” problem is a pitfall inherent to all human behavior research studies because researchers are dependent on those participants who are willing to volunteer. In this case, the participants are those willing and able to document their feelings online.

Harvard psychology researcher Matt Killingsworth and creator of the Web site trackyourhappiness.org identifies one caveat when trying to determine trends based on indiscriminate text.

"While people may be much more likely to use positive words such as 'love' on Valentine's Day," he argues, "that doesn't necessarily mean that people are vastly happier on February 14 than they were on February 13."

While evolving trends in song lyrics may serve as interesting fodder for conversation, Killingsworth also suggests that they may be a misleading indicator of happiness.

"Even if typical song lyrics are much more negative in 2009 than they were 30 or 40 years ago, this doesn't necessarily mean that people are much less happy today," he said. "In fact, what data we have suggests that happiness in the U.S. is about the same as it was 30 or 40 years ago."

While the utility of digital happiness trends may not be immediately obvious - they may be illustrative and communicative of our wants and needs just as any other language.

"Blogging and tweeting leave electronic signatures of ourselves," said Dodd. "Over time, these signatures may be as informative as the much more immediate communication of body language."

Do you blog to share emotions? Do you think that blogs serve as a good indication of a nation's emotional health?

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