Well, this is depressing: A team of scientists from the University of Vermont appears to have proven via the judicious use of Twitter that people have been gradually growing more and more unhappy over the last three years.
According to the report “Temporal Patterns of Happiness and Information in a Global Social Network,” which appeared in the December 7 edition of the Public Library of Science’s journal, PLoS ONE, Twitter’s happiness peaked somewhere around April 2009, and it’s all been downhill since then. “It appears that happiness is going down,” confirms UVM applied mathematician and lead author Peter Dodds, worryingly.
The group from UVM tracked more than 63 million Twitter users over a three-year period beginning September 2008, categorizing over 46 billion words with particular emotional meaning, having worked with groups of volunteers who would rate the “happiness” of words on a scale of one to nine–“food” rated 7.44, with “terrorist” just 1.3–only to discover that, except for a rise between January and April 2009, happiness is in sharp decline online.
(MORE: Why Twitter?)
The sharpest declines, no surprise, correspond with bad news; the 2008 financial bailout “induced a multi-week depression” according to the report, while news of the 2009 swine flu, Michael Jackson’s death, Patrick Swayze’s death and Twitter suffering an outage off a denial of service attack also resulting in significant downswings. Interestingly, cultural events also had an effect; the ending of Lost and Germany beating England in the 2010 World Cup both caused drops in Twitter’s overall happiness.
It’s not a continual downward trend, however; the report notes that “average happiness gradually increased over the last months of 2008, 2009, and 2010, and dropped in January of the ensuing years,” along with “a clear weekly signal with the peak generally occurring over the weekend, and the nadir on Monday and Tuesday.” In other words, people are happier during the holidays and weekends (something underlined later in the report, which notes that Christmas Day and Christmas Eve trend as the happiest days of the year).
I’ve gone on before about the value of Twitter as sociological barometer, so it’s no surprise I’m excited about this particular study; I admit that I’d be more excited if the results were more positive, but there’s no arguing with facts–or, it seems, the emotional wellbeing of 46 billion words. Here’s hoping that 2012 will end up being the year that Twitter cheers up.
Graeme McMillan is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @Graemem or on Facebook at Facebook/Graeme.McMillan. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.