Governments from the local to the national are increasingly interested in "wellbeing," that subjective notion that's harder to measure than per capita income or GDP, that comes closer to capturing what we more vaguely think of as happiness. We'd all like to have it: quality of life, life satisfaction, fulfillment.
As researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Michigan State University put it in arecent study on the topic, with a technological twist:
Happiness matters. For example, when a sample of Britons were asked what the prime objective of their government should be – “greatest happiness” or “greatest wealth”, 81% answered with happiness (Easton 2006). In a set of other studies conducted around the world, 69% of people on average rate well-being as their more important life outcome (Diener 2000). Psychologists still argue about how happiness should be defined, but few would deny that people desire it.
We typically gauge happiness, among individuals and whole communities or demographics, with survey questions like "how satisfied are you with your life?" But surveys cost money and contain their own biases. And so these academics, led by Johannes Eichstaedt and Andrew Schwartz, began to wonder if they could glean some sense of a community's wellbeing from the firehose of daily updates many of us voluntarily communicate about ourselves on Twitter.
Alexis Madrigal wrote several months ago about an earlier research project that tried something like this, manually coding the "happiness content" of tweets coming from different parts of the country to find the happiest cities in America. This latest study, also described by the authors on the Follow the Crowd research blog, takes a slightly different strategy and also dissects some of the correlates of "wellbeing" embedded in the language of our tweets.
The study examined 82 million tweets, mapped from nearly 1,300 U.S. counties and collected between June of 2009 and March of 2010 (each county had at least 30,000 twitter words geotagged to it). As the researchers found, Twitter can reveal a lot about wellbeing, not just among individuals (that's not such an impressive feat), but at the level of whole communities.