Happiness Metric Reaches All-Time Low

Back in 2013, a group of applied mathematicians (yay math!) from the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont developed what they referred to as the Dow Jones Index of Happiness – hedonometer.org.

The Hedonometer measures the happiness of large populations in real time, based on people’s online expressions, capitalizing on data-rich social media, and measuring how people present themselves to the outside world. For the first version of hedonometer.org, Twitter is the source of the data.

Before sharing what caused the metric to reach an all-time low, here’s a little blurb about the methodology behind how the hedonometer works, taken from the hedonometer.org web site:

To quantify the happiness of the atoms of language, we merged the 5,000 most frequent words from a collection of four corpora: Google Books, New York Times articles, Music Lyrics, and Twitter messages, resulting in a composite set of roughly 10,000 unique words. Using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, we had each of these words scored on a nine point scale of happiness: (1) sad to (9) happy. 

hedonometer.org currently measures Twitter’s Gardenhose feed, a random sampling of roughly 50 million (10%) of all messages posted to the service, comprising 100GB of JSON each day. Words in messages written in English are thrown into a large bag (containing roughly 100 million words per day), and the bag is assigned a happiness score based on the average happiness score of the words contained within.

The people behind the metric fully realize that Twitter may not be the most representative data, but offer some compelling reasons as to why it is still a useful measure:

  • We have found that our measure of happiness correlates very well with traditional surveys of well-being (see here for details).
  • Twitter provides a stern test for our instrument due to the enormous amount of data we receive and must process in real time.
  • We can focus in on Twitter communities to gain a sense of what people are expressing (e.g., countries and cities); and
  • Twitter continues to become a more and more important collective, global media voice, and is thus an important story in itself worthy of scientific analysis.

So there’s a little background, but for those interested, there’s even more on the hedonometer.org web site.

Now on to the tool itself, and the reason why it hit an all-time low.

Currently, it looks like the scale that is used has events ranging from 5.7 to 6.4, with a higher number reflecting more happiness. (You can click on the image below to go the hedonometer.org web site, and the image is interactive; when you place your cursor over one of the data points, it offers additional detail as to why that date received its happiness score.)


The scale dipped below 5.8 for the first time this week as a result of the mass shooting in Las Vegas.

It’s interesting to look at other high and low points on the index. It appears as if for each year since the index started, Christmas Day has been the happiest day of the year, which seems to lend some credibility to the metric.

Other happy days, as seen on the graphic above, include Thanksgiving, New Year’s Mothers’ Day, the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, and the day same sex marriage was declared legal in the U.S.

Many of the low points are the result of terrorist incidents, natural disasters, deaths of celebrities (the deaths of Michael Jackson and Robin Williams are noted on the image), and the election of Donald Trump.

One interesting event was the death of Osama bin Laden. Many people may consider that a happy day, but on the index, it is rated as a sad day. Hedonometer.org offers an explanation for this apparent contradiction:

Many people presume this day will be one of clear positivity. While we do see positive words such as “celebration” appearing, the overall language of the day on Twitter reflected that a very negatively viewed character met a very negative end. It was a day of complex emotion which is best explored in the word shift for the day, rather than the single number of its average happiness.

I find the index to be fascinating, since it’s one more way to look at happiness, a topic that has been the subject of many of my posts.

I’m also thinking that maybe some day I’ll have an impact on that day’s happiness index. In particular, I’m thinking about the day I stop blogging.

The index on that day may set an all-time record as a result of the collective happiness of all the people whose wish finally came true.

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Jim Borden

Accounting Prof. at Villanova; happily married for 30+ years; father of 3 outstanding young men; vegan; interests: fitness, creativity, education, blogging, social media.

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