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Think You’re Happy? Song Lyrics May Have the Answer

How can we track how happy we are? Just look at blogs and song lyrics, two professors say.

Peter S. Dodds and Christopher M. Danforth, a mathematician and a computer scientist from the University of Vermont, downloaded more than 230,000 songs composed since 1960, along with 2.3 million blog items posted to WeFeelFine.org since August 2005, and State of the Union addresses. Using a nine-point “happiness” scale for words from the Affective Norms for English Words study, they looked for what sentences using the word “feel.”

Their results are reported this week in the Journal of Happiness Studies in an article titled “Measuring the Happiness of Large-Scale Written Expression: Songs, Blogs, and Presidents.”

And what the two scholars found certainly was interesting. The last U.S. presidential election produced the happiest day in four years. Among the least happy were the day of Michael Jackson’s death last month, the fifth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks, and the day before.

The two professors say one thing that differentiates their results from those of other surveys is that their participants did not know they were being tested.

“We can't say what is going on in someone's head,” Mr. Dodds says. “We wanted to look at what people do, not at what people think they do.”

Their research also showed several trends. People seemed to get happier as they got older, until their 60s, when happiness began to decline. Happiness didn't vary much depending on the day of the week. And since the 1960s, songs have gotten sadder, leveling out in the 1990s—although it seems obvious that the Beach Boys music was more upbeat than that of the heavy-metal band Slipknot.

Mr. Danforth thinks data on happiness could help in the future. “A gross national happiness index could help design public policy and understand people’s reactions,” he says.

For their next project, the two professors are looking at people's Twitter accounts, taking in 1,000 tweets per minute. Unlike blogs, which are typically daily reflections, tweets are constantly updated and can show people’s immediate feelings, Mr. Dodds says.

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