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Guest Thinkers

The New Science of Happiness

How happy are you, on a scale of 1 to 10? If you don’t know how to answer that, you’re not alone. Surveying people about their happiness is notoriously problematic, even for psychologists. It requires researchers to reach some definition of the term that matches how their research subjects define it, and for people to self-report honestly, which is always a crapshoot. Still, surveys of the world’s happiest countries pop up all the time, but some researchers have devised what they call a more rigorous way to sense the national mood.

The New York Times reported today on an attempt by University of Vermont researchers to study American happiness not by asking Americans how happy they are, but rather by what we say to each other through speeches, blog posts, and song lyrics. These are more honest measures of well-being, they say, free from the self-censorship that survey subjects impose in order to seem “normal” to the person in the white coat with the clipboard.

The Vermont scientists compiled their findings by analyzing more than 200,000 song lyrics and more than 2 million blog posts, and rating their happiness content from 1 to 10: 1 being total misery, 10 jubilation. Some of the findings weren’t too surprising—teens were angsty, people over 70 worried about illness, and the rest of us are apparently too busy working to escape emotional mediocrity.

The real question is, how much can you take from analyzing speeches, songs and blogs? The Vermont study confirmed a lot of things we already knew, like that the nation was sad on Sept. 11 and happy when Obama was elected President, lonely on Valentine’s and feeling guilty for overeating and overspending at Christmas. However, national well-being is just an average. There were certainly people who weren’t happy when Obama won the election, and who were terribly happy last Valentine’s Day.

This study technique might very well lead to interesting derivatives when researchers get the chance to slice and dice the data some more. But enough about the psychological state of the nation—it’s a tool for pointless lists and meaningless comparisons between countries, not a useful metric.