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We may be less happy, but our language isn't

"If it bleeds, it leads," goes the cynical saying with television and newspaper editors. In other words, most news is bad news and the worst news gets the big story on the front page.

So one might expect the New York Times to contain, on average, more negative and unhappy types of words like "war," " funeral," "cancer," "murder" than positive, happy ones like "love," "peace" and "hero."

Or take Twitter. A popular image of what people tweet about may contain a lot of complaints about bad days, worse coffee, busted relationships and lousy sitcoms. Again, it might be reasonable to guess that a giant bag containing all the words from the world's tweets on average would be more negative and unhappy than positive and happy.

But new research shows just the opposite.

"English, it turns out, is strongly biased toward being positive," said Peter Dodds, an applied mathematician at the University of Vermont.

The UVM team's study "Positivity of the English Language," is presented in the Jan. 11 issue of the journal PLoS ONE.

This new study complements another study the same Vermont scientists presented in the Dec. 7 issue of PLoS ONE, "Temporal Patterns of Happiness and Information in a Global Social Network."

That work attracted wide media attention showing that average global happiness, based on Twitter data, has been dropping for the past two years.

Combined, the two studies show that short-term average happiness has dropped against the backdrop of the long-term fundamental positivity of the English language.

In the new study, Dodds and his colleagues gathered billions of words from four sources: twenty years of the New York Times, the Google Books Project (with millions of titles going back to 1520), Twitter and a half-century of music lyrics.

"The big surprise is that in each of these four sources it's the same," says Dodds. "We looked at the top 5,000 words in

Contact: Joshua Brown
University of Vermont

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