UVM professors measure happiness

07/31/09 7:34AM By Ross Sneyd
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(Host) Throughout the centuries, philosophers from Plato to Thomas Jefferson have written about the quest for happiness.

Now, a pair of University of Vermont scientists say they've come up with what they think is the best way to measure what makes us joyful or sad.

VPR's Ross Sneyd has more.

Peter Dodds
(Sneyd) The happiest day over the past several years came on November 4th last year.

(Obama) "If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible; who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer."

(Sneyd) Professor Peter Dodds says Barack Obama's election produced an outpouring of good cheer that he was able to measure.

(Dodds) "There are many things that people said on that day that shifted the average up: good and positive words. But proud was the one that moved the most, people saying, ‘I feel proud' that moved things the most."

(Sneyd) And the opposite? The day of sadness?

(Music from Billie Jean)

(Sneyd) The day Michael Jackson, the "King of Pop," died.

(Dodds) "the three days, including the day of his death, were all about the same and that was a fairly steep drop from where it had been trotting along in June and went pop down and came back up again about four days later."

(Sneyd) Dodds and his research partner, Chris Danforth, come to these conclusions at their computer keyboards.

They keep a tally of the words people use in their Twitter posts and on tens of thousands of blog entries.

They use a scoring system that assigns a number based on how positive a word is - nine is the most positive, one is the least. Then, a software program that Dodds and Danforth created adds up the scores and averages them out to determine how happy or sad we are.

They've done the same thing for presidential State of the Union speeches and for song lyrics.

They've broken music down into nine different categories. Their conclusion is that gospel and soul are the happiest.

(Luther Vandross)

(Sneyd) And the most unhappy, by far, they say, is heavy metal.

(Fear Factory)

Chris Danforth

(Sneyd) Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean," by the way, scored a 7.1 on the happiness index - which means it's a pretty upbeat song with words such as love, beauty queen and truth.

Dodds' and Danforth's work has just been published in the Journal of Happiness Studies. Yes, there's really such a publication. It describes itself as "an interdisciplinary forum on subjective well-being."

They know that there are potential holes in their measurements. Not everyone uses computers, for example.

But they say theirs is the first time there's been such a large measurement of mood.

(Dodds) "Happiness matters, I think. ... Quantifying it is incredibly important. And it's something we've only come to realize more strongly in the last 20 or 30 years. Most measures, pretty much all measure up until now, have been simply asking people, ‘How happy are you?' ... What we wanted to do was trying a remote sensing type approach where we take in millions of peoples' comments about things."

(Sneyd) They have a range of findings. Thirteen- and fourteen-year-olds are the most unhappy among us. And middle-age - from 45 to 60 - is the happiest time of life.

And our happiest presidents - or at least those who used the most positive language in their State of the Union speeches - were JFK, Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.

For VPR News, I'm Ross Sneyd.

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happiness peter_dodds chris_danforth health
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