Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Mapping Happiness

By Tim Olds

Blogs, tweets, news reports and songs can be used to map happiness levels by city, age group and even the day of the week and the time of the day.

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Happiness is good for us. Happier people have stronger immune systems, better mental health, live longer lives, earn more money and are more likely to have stable marriages.

These associations are enduring. One study found that people who were happy in their first year at university had higher salaries 16 years later, even when allowance was made for initial wealth differences.

How do we know if someone is happy? The easiest way is to ask them. The typical question uses a scale looking something like this: “In general, I consider myself not a very happy person (1) … a very happy person (7)”. If we ask lots of people, we can work out patterns of happiness in time and space. We find out, for example, that people who exercise or spend a lot of time with friends and family or are religious are happier. But asking people can be a tiresome and costly business.

Recently an ingenious method has been developed to map happiness. “Textual hedonometrics” analyses very large corpuses of words, such as blogs, tweets, newspaper articles and song lyrics. One method is to use a sizeable sample of words that have been rated as happy or unhappy.

The ANEW corpus consists of 1034 words that have been rated on a 9-point happy/unhappy scale by a large group of respondents. For example, the word “triumphant” rates 8.82, while “suicide” scores 1.25. Texts can be...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.