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?

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

August 3rd, 2009
06:15 PM ET

Fighting divorce: An endemic public health crisis

By Akash Goel
CNN Medical intern

New research contradicts the age-old adage, "'Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all."

A study, “Marital Biography and Health at Mid-Life” appearing in the September issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior found that the middle-aged divorced or widowed have 20 percent more chronic health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes and 23 percent more mobility limitations such as difficulty climbing stairs.

While it may seem odd to think of it as such, divorce can be viewed as a public health crisis with national rates estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be nearly 50 percent nationally.

A large field of research suggests that people who are in close, social relationships are healthier. When marriages are functional, they are perhaps the ideal form of social and emotional support. When marriages fail, however, these mental health bedrocks crumble (among other parts of your life.)

Kristi Williams, a professor of sociology at Ohio State University, believes changes in societal perceptions of the idea of marriage are influencing rising divorce rates.

"We've come to view marriage as a source of individual satisfaction whereas in the past marriage was viewed largely as an institution that was necessary in order to raise a family," she says. "When that goes away, it is much easier to dissolve the marriage."

Tal Ben-Shahar, positive psychologist and former Harvard professor, argues instead that we're philosophically less committed to relationships.

"In the past, people stayed together even when they were not happy together — for religious reasons, because of convention, or because they had no real choice," he says, "Today, both men and women have more choice, and it’s more acceptable to divorce — hence easier. And when they face challenges in their relationships, instead of dealing with these challenges, they opt to leave."

Williams suggests that many studies have linked poor marriage quality to poor health outcomes, and thus improving marriage quality should be a worthy public health pursuit.

One example of this is the Department of Health and Human Services’ support of the “Healthy Marriage Initiative,” which provides $150 million each year towards relationship education to help strengthen families.

However on an individual level, one of the most important things we can do to ensure a successful marriage according to Ben Shahar, is learn how to handle gridlock: a term coined by sex therapist David Schnarch that refers to the point at which couples feel stuck in a conflict surrounding issues of children, in-laws, money, or sex and see no way out. While gridlock is often the tipping point leading to divorce, Schnarch believes we should embrace these "the drive wheels and grind stones of intimate relationships" as essential stepping stones towards realizing a successful marriage.

"Marriage operates at much greater intensity and pressure than we expect," Schnarch writes, "so great, in fact, couples mistakenly assume it’s time for divorce when it’s really time to get to work.”

Have you been through a divorce? Did you feel unhealthy as result?

Editor’s Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

July 20th, 2009
01:27 PM ET

A researcher's remix: A poetic take on medicine

By Akash Goel
CNN Medical News Intern

After my first year of medical school, I held an idyllic optimism about communication and the doctor-patient relationship. We learn about these interactions from videos that are perfectly staged with cued actors in camera make-up. After five minutes of talking with Jessica Ridpath, I confidently threw these false pretenses out the window.

She told me tragically unimaginable stories of an immigrant mother and a barely literate filmmaker. The mother helplessly killed her sick infant after being told to "force fluids." The filmmaker couldn't read the consent form for the "quick fix" proposed to solve her "female problem." She did not realize she had had a hysterectomy until her six-week follow-up visit.

Ridpath desperately recites these examples with a looming sense of urgency. Both a slam poet and research coordinator at Group Health Research Institute (GHRI), Ridpath is on a verbal tirade to improve communication and poor language in health care.

“Poetry is about making something meaningful," she explained. "Communication in health care is the same way - if the meaning doesn't land, then you haven't communicated."

She believes a human rights issue is at stake. In 2004, the Institute of Medicine reported that complex language prevents 93 million Americans - half of the adult population - from finding, understanding and acting on essential health information. While health illiteracy clearly has harmful consequences in clinical situations, Ridpath also believes it disenfranchises human research subjects because they are unable to understand consent forms. This is perhaps a striking paradox as the very purpose of consent forms is to ensure one's compliance and understanding of the research.

She champions the cause of human research subjects because they are acutely vulnerable and are many times participating in research as a last resort or as a personal sacrifice to advance clinical knowledge.

"People have a right to clear information when they're spending time–and perhaps risking their health and/or confidentiality–for the greater good," she said.

Most informed consent forms for research studies are written well above the national adult average of an eighth-grade reading level. Given this, Ridpath argues that the scientific community is not abiding by federal regulations that require research studies to be "understandable to the subject." This mandate traditionally meant that consent forms were to be written in research subject's native language. However, if the forms aren't comphrensible, the language might as well be foreign.

Four years ago Ridpath launched PRISM, the Project to Review and Improve Study Materials. Using the Flesch-Kincaid readability algorithm, she reviewed several years worth of consent forms and cataloged language that communicated rather than mystified. Sampling language that worked, Ridpath essentially created a remix of research study language in the form of a toolkit that offers communication strategies and proper plain language templates for researchers.

Ridpath calls the toolkit "a rallying cry to the research community."

"It reminds them of their ethical obligation to protect the rights and interests of research participants," she said. "And it gives them tools to help them do a better job of that."

While the toolkit has already had thousands of downloads, Ridpath's goal is to proactively put the kit in the hands of more researchers across the country and begin providing training and editing services to institutions that lack these resources in-house.

"In my opinion," she argued, "the effectiveness and integrity of the entire research enterprise are severely limited when research isn't disseminated in a meaningful way to the public."

Next Ridpath wants to tackle issues of numeracy - literacy about numbers - to help people understand the cost-benefit analysis of treatment options for patients. She believes we have a societal knee-jerk reaction to medicate via pills rather than to modify lifestyle.

"If you speak more like a poet and think about expressing meaning," she said, "you can convey that message in a way that will inspire action."

Editor's Note: Medical news is a popular but sensitive subject rooted in science. We receive many comments on this blog each day; not all are posted. Our hope is that much will be learned from the sharing of useful information and personal experiences based on the medical and health topics of the blog. We encourage you to focus your comments on those medical and health topics and we appreciate your input. Thank you for your participation.

About this blog

Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.