Behavior / Evidence

The Pursuit of Happiness

“The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” — Benjamin Franklin
 
Picture taken from www.barryfalke.comThe most fundamental of human pursuits: Happiness. A billion dollar industry, a psychological quest, a lifetime journey. However you think of it, the human experience is distinguished by our unique desire to couple survival with fulfillment. It isn’t enough to just live; we must live a life of meaning and joy. The difficulty, of course, is figuring out how to live that life.
 
Researchers have long been focused on this question from a data standpoint, administering surveys to calculate statistics such as the UN’s Gross National Happiness index and Gallup-Healthways U.S.  Well-being Index.  However, some innovative thinkers have recently taken it a step further , querying Twitter and Google for tweets and searches on happiness and depression, respectively, to tell us where, when and why happiness is dispersed throughout the United States.
 
For example, economist Dr. Stephens-Davidowitz recently published an article discussing the results of his Google investigation on depression, where he analyzed 9 years of searches (tens of millions of Google queries) that included the word “depression.”  What did he find? If you believe that these queries mean something– that their prevalence represents areas and times associated with flux in depressive symptoms–  then his data show that depression is highest in April and lowest in August.  Moreover, according to Dr. Stephens-Davidowitz, “The state with the highest rate of depression is North Dakota; the one with the lowest, Virginia. The city with the highest rate is Presque Isle, Me.; the city with the lowest, San Francisco. Depression is, unsurprisingly, highest on Mondays and lowest on Saturdays. ” In addition, unemployment appears to be one of the biggest predictors of depression, as queries of depression over time increased to the greatest extent in states with large increases in unemployment.  Suprisingly, the other factor that accounted for the most variation in depression was climate: specifically, an area’s average temperature in January.  As the author notes, “moving… from the city with the 30th coldest climate in the United States (Chicago) to the city with the warmest (Honolulu) lowers the probability of September-to-April depression by some 40 percent.”
 
Graph courtesy of Mitchell et al. 2013University of Vermont researchers took a similar social media approach to happiness, scoring individual words of Twitter posts for happiness, mapping these word usage patterns geographically, and correlating them with traditional city-level census survey data.  This extraordinary methodology encompassed over 10 million geo-tagged Tweets from 373 United States cities in 2011. Cool, huh? The figure on the right shows the happiest states (red = most happy; blue = least happy) with Hawaii yet again ending up on top, although Maine is a close second.  Notably, authors found that the happiness rating generated by analyzing Tweets compared favorably to survey data garnered from established questionnaires, such as the above-mentioned Gallup Well-Being Index and the United Health Foundation’s America’s Health Ranking, supporting validity of the methodology.  Focusing on average word happiness at a city-wide level, study authors unsurprisingly found a strong happiness concentration in cities located in California and Colorado. Of local interest,Twitter revealed that Waterbury, CT, has the 5th lowest happiness ranking.  And finally, by comparing survey data to Tweets, authors confirmed that certain demographics make us more likely to be happy (wealth, education, and overall socioeconomic status) whereas several others (obesity, for example) predispose us to unhappiness.
 
Ultimately, while we learn a lot about WHERE and WHEN and WHY people are happy from these interesting studies, we don’t garner as much information on HOW. My two cents? I like Edith Wharton’s quote: “There are two ways of spreading light. To be the candle, or the mirror that reflects it.”  In other words, create your own happiness, or catch the contagious joy of those who sparkle around you.
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