How Happy Are We? Twitter Says Not Very

Sad Female HeadWe are living in uneasy times. If you want to quantify that, check out the Hedonometer at the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont. According to their analyses, Twitter was a pretty happy place before 2020. Peter Dodds and colleagues on the Hedonometer project wrote in 2015 that human language has a “universal positivity bias.” In fact, he and his colleagues found this to be true across 24 massive collections of writings across ten different languages. But in 2020, that has changed.

A Long Slide

After peak happiness during the holidays, the mood on Twitter started to slide this year. It hit a new low on March 12 when the scope of the coronavirus pandemic became unmistakeable. And then, the response to the murder of George Floyd took it even lower. Shortly after his death on May 25, the 31st became the saddest day ever on Twitter.

After each of these low points, average happiness on Twitter rebounded, but the mood was less resilient each time. Chris Danforth, who works with Dodds on the Hedonometer, explains that this is most remarkable:

“Our collective attention is very ephemeral. So it was really remarkable then that the instrument, for the first time, showed this sustained, depressed mood, and then it got even worse, when the protests started.”

Of course, Twitter is not reality, so you would be right to question whether the language we’re using on Twitter really represents how happy the world is. However, these big hits to happiness are also reflected in survey research. For example, the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found a “historic shift in Americans’ happiness” in their ongoing research.

So We Turn to Nature

From other quarters at the University of Vermont, we can find encouragement. Joe Roman and Taylor Rickets write that people are turning to parks for a source of cheer. They cite an analysis of tweets from parks and report:

“Twitter records show that parks increase happiness to a level similar to the bounce at Christmas, which typically is the happiest day of the year.”

We don’t have to rely on Twitter to know that nature can lift our spirits. Experimental studies have shown that something as simple a walk through a park will lift our mood and improve our memories. Making green space and improving vacant lots can help with the mental health of a neighborhood.

Ignoring the problems that have brought us low will not make them disappear. But lifting our mood to a happier place can equip us better to deal with them. A stroll in the park might be a good start.

Click here for more on readings from the Hedonometer and here for more on turning to nature for lifting our mood.

Sad Female Head, painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner / WikiArt

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October 17, 2020

One Response to “How Happy Are We? Twitter Says Not Very”

  1. October 17, 2020 at 3:56 pm, Amy Endrizal said:

    So true! Many if not most of the “mood swings” on the Hedonometer relate to human or social events, more so than natural phenomena (whether a disaster or an especially impressive meteor shower).

    Even if you can’t get out into nature, it’s a mood lifter to see the wider world beyond what affects Homo sapiens. My spouse has kept his spirits up by setting up a chair and a tripod in the backyard, observing, and photographing the everyday plants and animals we often overlook. Just replacing part of my Twitter habit with nature photography on Flickr has helped me keep things in perspective.

    I hope the good folks at the Univ. of Vermont keep up the research and avoid the temptation to rename their instrument the Dolorometer!

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