April 15th, 2013 → 6:24 am @ // No Comments

“O, how bitter a thing it is to look into happiness through another man’s eyes!” – As You Like It

Continuing with the theme of linguistic differences and changes in meaning of things over time, I came across an interesting piece of research the other day, where a bunch of anthropologists tracked emotion words in literature over time (i.e. literally tracked the frequency usage of “happy” words in google books from 1900-2000).  And one of their conclusions was that people were happier 100 years ago than they are today, because they used more “happy” words in their published writings.  Personally, I find this bogus.  Not just because economics research does not seem to be finding significant happy distinctions like this over time, but also because I am an author.  Have you read any books from 1900?  I have.  The writing style was very different back then.  Effusive, saccharine, adverb-laden in a way modern writing most definitely is not.  It doesn’t mean our happiness levels have changed, it means our writing styles have.  Subtlety and “show-not-tell” are the mantras of fine literature today; they weren’t back then.

One Comment → “Happiness Research”

  1. Chris Clark

    11 years ago

    It seems like they’re also ignoring differences in both who could publish in 1900 vs. 2000 and who the potential audience was. Social standards have changed a lot, easily affecting the demographics of the group and let’s not even go into the limitations of only using books that had been digitized on Google.

    What I find even more disappointing is that they got funding for this work. I’m not saying it’s worthless, but the number of holes–or if you prefer, areas for future research–seem more significant than the work itself. Seems like grad student work, not a collaboration of four folks with doctorates.


Leave a Reply