Language is hardwired to be optimistic, even if people aren't

Between political disagreements, economic instability, and climate troubles, you might assume every newspaper is full of bad news. Weirdly enough, the exact opposite is true. No matter what's going on in the real world, English is a perversely positive language.

That's the rather counter-intuitive finding of mathematicians at the University of Vermont, who just last month used Twitter data to argue that global happiness had decreased over the last two years. And yet, whatever these short-term trends, English seems to remain "strongly biased toward being positive", as team member Peter Dodds puts it.

Of course, that might seem like such a huge statement that it's impossible. To reach that conclusion, they examined billions of words used in such diverse sources as the last twenty years of The New York Times, 50 years worth of music lyrics, Twitter, and the Google Books Project, which includes millions texts dating as far back as 1520. They then looked at the top 5,000 words for each of these, and then enlisted volunteers to rate on a scale of 1 to 9 the happiness of the 10,222 most common words taken from these four sources.

Some words, like "the" or "is", generated completely neutral scores, while other words had such a wide spread of scores that they ended up averaging somewhere in the middle. These wildly divergent worlds, according to the researchers, included topics like "profanities, alcohol and tobacco, religion, both capitalism and socialism, sex, marriage, fast foods, climate, and cultural phenomena such as the Beatles, the iPhone, and zombies."

But that still left words that people did form consistent, strong ratings for, with a word like laughter clocking in at a very happy 8.50 and terrorist an extremely unhappy 1.30. Using these scores, the researchers then tested the texts, and in all four sources they found a net positivity that we might not otherwise expect. There were more happy words than unhappy words, and the happy words tended to show up much more often — whether we're talking tweets, Times article, or 17th century British literature.

This isn't just trivial, either. This bias supports the idea that language is a social construct, meant to engender positive relations between groups. That's why language retains a net happiness, even when talking about bad news — it's hard-wired human nature to follow up a sad story with some good news. Even if the thoughts we want to convey are sad, most of the words available to us are happy ones, and so we can't go for long without saying something positive.

It's a grand theory, and one that isn't necessarily easy to square with our intuitive sense that language is something we use to communicate whatever we want. The idea that language itself is in some way directing us to say certain things — in this case, to say happier things — may seem far-fetched, and indeed there's more research that needs to be done before we can say that with certainty. But this analysis suggests these trends really do exist in all sorts of places, and those trends tilt language in an altogether happier direction.

Via PLoS ONE. Image by ShironekoEuro on Flickr.