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Hitting a Sour Note: The Declining Happiness in Song Lyrics

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: a happiness meter built on word choice. We continue our conversation with Chris Danforth, a mathematician at the University of Vermont. He and his colleague Peter Dodds did a computer analysis of the feelings expressed in almost ten million sentences written by two million English speaking bloggers.

Each sentence received a happiness score based on their use of a thousand or so words. These came from an unrelated psychology study in which college students rated the words on a scale of one to nine. Words like paradise and love rate high; words like hostage and trauma rate low.

Chris Danforth says demographic data like the blogger's age was also factored in. And guess what?

CHRIS DANFORTH: "Happiness really does change as you move through your life as a function of age. These sociologists have always wanted to say that there's this sort of mountain-shaped curve as a function of age, and that's exactly what we saw for these two million people. And that's one of the first times that it's been seen."

RS: "How do you think your study addresses the American character and our happiness?"

CHRIS DANFORTH: "There's a couple of other things that we found that are I think a little bit more related to the American experience. So one thing is that we found that happiness follows roughly the same curve as a function of distance from the Earth's equator. So it sort of rolls over and peaks somewhere near the center of the United States, in that latitude around thirty-five, forty degrees la titude.

"And the work week turns out to be a part of this story too. So the weekends tend to be fairly happy and Wednesday turned out to be the saddest day. So people's daily experience is being reflected somewhat in what they're saying. And this is more of a story, we think, for Twitter messages, which we've just started to pay attention to, about a year ago."

AA: "These hundred-forty character messages, little tweets."

CHRIS DANFORTH: "Right. They're a little bit more fresh. They're more about what you're doing right now, and less about something you've been thinking about for a long time or something you're complaining about or something you did yesterday, which is what bloggers tend to be writing about."

RS: "So where do you go from here?"

CHRIS DANFORTH: "So that's really the next step for us, is using these Twitter messages. In terms of the bigger picture, we're thinking that this down the road could turn into something like a gross national happiness index like the country of Bhutan has.

"And it would be nice if we had a way to measure in real time how people are doing around the world, in a way that was non-reactive, that they didn't know we were doing it, we were doing our best to observe them in a natural environment and not deal with the problems of self-report that show up in some of the other studies."

RS: "The title of your paper is 'Measuring the Happiness of Large-Scale Written Expression: Songs, Blogs, and Presidents.' We've talked a little bit about blogs, but how do the songs and presidents fit in?"

CHRIS DANFORTH: "We decided initially that we would look at songs to see if what we were doing made any sense. So I downloaded all the song lyrics available on the Internet over the last sixty years' or so worth of music. And I wrote a program to go to the iTunes database and query the genre and release year for each one of these songs.

"And we ended up finding that happiness really has been declining in music lyrics fairly significantly over the last forty-five, fifty years. Broken down by genre, we saw that the music really hasn't changed very much. Gospel and soul is very happy, and pop music and country music, folk music -- those are all flat as a function of time.

"And then in the eighties you start to see hip-hop and rap and punk and metal and industrial. And the appearance of those genres is really responsible for pulling down the happiness as a function of time for all of the music lyrics.

"We also downloaded all the State of the Union addresses for all the presidents, and we found that John F. Kennedy, not surprisingly, was the one whose rhetoric ended up being the highest, and Eisenhower and Reagan scored fairly high. And we found that as a function of time, the happiness scores for these State of the Union addresses tended to match world events fairly accurately."

RS: "Now, out of all these words, do you have a favorite happy word that makes you feel good when you come to work each day?"

CHRIS DANFORTH: "[Laughs] Well, a thousand thirty-four is a lot of words, right? And occasionally we'll look through the list and wonder why somebody decided that that word should make it. And I think one of my favorites is pancakes. So pancakes gets a six out of nine on the happiness scale, and I know that when I'm making pancakes for my daughter, I'm usually pretty happy."

AA: You can find the first part of our interview with Chris Danforth from the University of Vermont at our Web site, The research paper is in the Journal of Happiness Studies. And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.