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Twitter study finds "a gradual downward trend" in users' happiness

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Scientists from the University of Vermont have found an innovative new way to benchmark our collective happiness: Twitter. Unfortunately, it isn’t looking good.

Since April 2009, the researchers have collected more than 46 billion words from roughly 63 billion tweets in order to create a happiness graph. The study, published on Dec. 7 in PLoS ONE, shows “a gradual downward trend, accelerated somewhat over the first half of 2011.”

To determine the trend, the researchers used a method much more sophisticated than Kraft’s Jell-O pudding Twitter happiness campaign. Instead of merely tracking emoticons, the group paid volunteers to rate the emotional weight of various words from “suicide” to “pancake.”

The research group realized that their approach was working when it successfully identified Twitter’s happiest days as Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and those on the weekend. It also paired Twitter’s least happy days with tragic events like the Japanese tsunamis, the spread of the swine flu, and the death of actor Patrick Swayze.

“All the most negative days are shocks from outside people’s routines,” Peter Dodds, the lead author and UVM applied mathematician, told Psych Central.

Of the study, which lets researchers measure happiness by geography as well as at specific times, Dodds said he was optimistic about the possibilities this global study might open up. It could be used in public policy, marketing, and a variety of other fields.

“It does skew toward younger people and people with smartphones and so on— but Twitter is nearly universal now,” Dodds said. “Every demographic is represented.”

Illustration by Lauren Orsini