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Measuring happiness on social media


Happiness. It’s something we all strive for, but how do we measure it — as a country? A global community? Not so surprisingly, researchers are turning to social media to answer these questions and more. In a newly published study, computer scientists used two years of Twitter data to measure users’ life satisfaction, a component of happiness.

The study is different from most social media research done on happiness, because it looks at how users feel about their lives over time, instead of how they feel in the moment. Think of it as trends instead of just data points.

“In countries like Bhutan, they are not satisfied with current measures of success like GDP, so they are measuring the Gross National Happiness Index,” Chao Yang, lead author on the study.

“They want to know how well their people are living; we saw an opportunity there.”

The team mined data from about 3 billion tweets from October 2012 to October 2014. To accomplish what they wanted, they limited their data set to only first-person tweets with the words “I,” “me,” or “mine” in them to increase the likelihood of getting messages that conveyed self-reflection.

Then the team developed algorithms to capture the basic ways of expressing satisfaction or dissatisfaction with one’s life. They used these statements to build retrieval templates to find expressions of life satisfaction and their synonyms on Twitter. For example, the template for the statement “my life is great” also would include statements such as “my life is wonderful,” “my life is fabulous,” etc.

The researchers found that people’s feelings of long-term happiness and satisfaction with their lives remained steady over time, unaffected by external events such as an election, a sports game, or an earthquake in another country.

These findings contrast with previous social media research on happiness, which typically has looked at short-term happiness (called “affect”) and found that people’s daily moods were heavily influenced by external events. However, the new findings are consistent with traditional social science research on subjective well-being — the fancy scientific term for “happiness” — which in a way, lends credibility to their research.

“The traditional methods of studying happiness have been through surveys and observations and that takes a lot of effort,” Padmini Srinivasan, UI professor of computer science says.

“But if you can actually tap into social media and get observations, I think it would be unwise to ignore that opportunity. So let the traditional methods continue, but let’s also look at social media, if it indeed gives you sensible results, and this study shows that it does.”

The team was able to group Twitter users by those who expressed satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their lives, with key differences found between the two. They found satisfied users were active on Twitter for a longer period of time and used more hashtags and — unsurprisingly — more exclamation marks, but included fewer URLs in their tweets. Dissatisfied users were more likely to use personal pronouns, conjunctions, and profanity in their tweets.

In addition, the researchers found differences in satisfied and dissatisfied users’ psychological processes. Dissatisfied users were at least 10 percent more likely than satisfied users to express negative emotion, anger, and sadness and to use words such as “should,” “would,” “expect,” “hope,” and “need” that may express determination and aspirations for the future.

They also were more likely to use sexual words and to use them in a negative context. Satisfied users were more likely to express positive emotion–especially related to health and sexuality–and were at least 10 percent more likely to use words related to money and religion. Dissatisfied users were at least 10 percent more likely to use words related to death, depression, and anxiety.

Yang and Srinivasan also studied users who changed their assessments of their life satisfaction. The study found users who changed from expressing satisfaction to dissatisfaction over time posted more about anger, anxiety, sadness, death, and depression compared to those who continued to express satisfaction.

Srinivasan says research like this is significant because life satisfaction is a big component of happiness.

“To be happy is what everyone strives for, ultimately, so it’s important,” she says.

“With this research, we can get a better understanding of the differences between those who express satisfaction and those who express dissatisfaction with their life. Possibly in the future, with more such studies, one might design suitable interventions.”

The team hopes to continue the research by looking at other features that might separate satisfied and dissatisfied social media users, such as the use of medications or linguistic capacity, and to eventually make predictions that could help identify people who are at risk for changing from satisfied to dissatisfied.

Yang, C., & Srinivasan, P. (2016). Life Satisfaction and the Pursuit of Happiness on Twitter PLOS ONE, 11 (3) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0150881


13 responses

  1. Nice article ! Indeed its human nature where human being wants to relate him with society n social media is much more virtual cafe shop for them where they can chat liked. N get connected too

    Liked by 1 person

    April 27, 2016 at 2:29 pm

  2. I enjoyed reading this! It’s always great to find new ways to understand the trend of peoples feelings. This is a great idea, using social media is what every on gets on to promote their feelings of the day. I would agree with the fact that people who are dissatisfied would use more use words and profanity than satisfied users who were on there longer and used special characters to emphasize the way they feel. Knowing what i know now about how much external events effect ones mood in one day makes this article make much more sense.


    April 27, 2016 at 4:56 pm

    • I think using social media as a way to measure the happiness of a general population is a great idea too. I thought it was funny that people who were happier, used more exclamation marks!!!!!


      April 29, 2016 at 12:13 pm

  3. AH

    This is quite interesting! Thanks for posting!


    April 28, 2016 at 3:01 am

  4. Haley

    I enjoyed reading about this study, but there are some flaws I see in it. For me, personally, when I go to social media (ESPECIALLY Twitter), I do it primarily to complain. Of course, there are times when I go on to write about some accomplishment I’ve had or a good time, but generally, I use social media to vent. I feel like this is the case for many people. I do find the way they coded for certain words in the satisfied and dissatisfied conditions very interesting.


    April 28, 2016 at 11:42 am

    • I’m glad you liked the study. I think there could be some bias for more dissatisfied (or rather, unhappy) people using social media to vent, but even then it gives a good idea of how many people in a certain area are feeling unhappy.


      April 29, 2016 at 12:15 pm

  5. Theresa Johnson

    Great article! I think its interesting how we’re are able measure happiness through social media. However, I believe when it comes to social media, it is difficult to measure peoples true feelings. From my experience with Facebook, I believe people don’t always post when they are going through rough times. They don’t want the world to see that part of them. They want everyone to see that they are happy, successful, and problem free. I feel it is difficult to measure subject well-being though social media because people are not always truthful when sharing their feelings with the world. Just my thoughts on the subject. Again, great article, I really enjoyed reading it.


    April 28, 2016 at 5:02 pm

    • I’m glad you liked it, I agree that we tend to filter in our lives so it probably follows us to social media. On the other hand though, the anonymity of the internet does allow for some of that filter to come down. To which, internet trolls are an unintended and slightly depressing consequence.


      April 29, 2016 at 12:17 pm

  6. Jake

    This article was very interesting to me for many reasons. I use social media like twitter and Facebook and every day i see someone tweeting about how sad or depressed they are, but there is also those people who tweet about how happy they are. The study that was done could be inaccurate but also could be 100% true. Like someone said another comment, the study has it flaws but it could be believable. People feel that twitter is an area to release they’re feelings and share to everyone whats happening in there life.


    April 29, 2016 at 2:36 pm

  7. This article was very interesting to me for many reasons. I use twitter and Facebook everyday and i see people out in the world complaining about they’re life and how terrible it is. they use social media as a way to share they’re feelings and let everything out. The study that was done in this article was very interesting and i would ask some questions to the researchers. Someone commented that there is some flaws in this, i totally agree with you on the data they collected.


    April 29, 2016 at 2:40 pm

    • If you’re really interested in the topic and want to reach out to the researchers, I always suggest you go for it. You might even help them come up with a new line of inquiry that could shape future studies.


      April 30, 2016 at 11:02 am

  8. Jesse

    Very interesting article. I have used social media in the past to express both my satisfaction and dissatisfaction at the time I had those feelings. I think it is a great way to kind of get things off of your chest when you might not have someone there to vent to. When you scroll your timeline of Facebook or Twitter you will run into a good mixture of people’s satisfaction and dissatisfaction. You will be able to tell what they might be feeling, which you could then send a message or text and try to help or you just might scroll though. But this is a very good article, and was something I did not think about before!


    April 29, 2016 at 8:56 pm

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it and that it made you think. Thanks for taking the time to comment.


      April 30, 2016 at 10:43 am

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