In 1881, the optimistic Irish economist Francis Edgeworth imagined a strange device called a "hedonimeter" that would be capable of "continually registering the height of pleasure experienced by an individual." In other words, a happiness sensor.
His was just a daydream. In practice, for decades, social scientists have had a devilish headache in trying to measure happiness. Surveys...are plagued by the unpleasant fact that people misreport and misremember their feelings when confronted by the guy with the clipboard... People get squirrely when they know they're being studied.
But what if you had a remote-sensing mechanism that could record how millions of people around the world were feeling on any particular day — without their knowing? [The] answer to Edgeworth's daydream begins with a website, http://www.wefeelfine.org that mines through some 2.3 million blogs, looking for sentences beginning with "I feel" or "I am feeling."
"We gathered nearly 10 million sentences from their site," Dodds says. Then, drawing on a standardized "psychological valence" of words established by the Affective Norms for English Words (ANEW) study, each sentence receives a happiness score. For example, "triumphant" averaged 8.87, "paradise" 8.72, "pancakes" 6.08, "vanity" 4.30, "hostage" 2.20, and "suicide" 1.25.
The temperature of the blogosphere
Since many blogs are connected to demographic data, Dodd's and Danforth's approach can let them measure the rise and fall of happiness of, say, people under 35 in California on Wednesdays, and compare to other places, age groups, and days..
"We were able to make observations of people in a fairly natural environment at several orders of magnitude higher than previous happiness studies," Danforth says. "They think they are communicating with friends," but, since blogs are public, he says, "we're just looking over their shoulders."
Initially I was rather creeped out, knowing someone is "looking over my shoulder". But after checking out "We Feel Fine" I'm beyond fascinated and plan to spend more time on this very cool site! The creators, Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar, sound like very down-to-earth guys who had a great idea and knew how to run with it. On their mission page they write:
"At its core, We Feel Fine is an artwork authored by everyone. It will grow and change as we grow and change, reflecting what's on our blogs, what's in our hearts, what's in our minds. We hope it makes the world seem a little smaller, and we hope it helps people see beauty in the everyday ups and downs of life."
...but back to the study by Dodds and Danforth (an unfortunate pairing of names, as it brings to mind Christopher Dodd and Jack Danforth in Congress): What's up with PANCAKES being worth 6.08 points?! While I do love me some pancakes, I'm just not understanding the correlation on a happy meter.
Although there is that guy who is spreading some french toast love with his FTX posse.
I wonder whether Dodds & Danforth have assigned a value to CHOCOLATE? I feel it should definitely be on the happy meter. No research into happiness is complete without adequately studying the effect of chocolate on society. I feel certain that's some research I could sink my teeth into! How do you feel?