Neither music historians nor hard-core metal fans will gasp to learn that the band Staind, with songs like “Painful” and “Mudshovel,” tends to go far more negative in its lyrics than did the heavyweight of soul, Luther Vandross, whose many hits included “The Closer I Get to You.” Or that Slayer (“Raining Blood”) paints darker word pictures than Faith Evans (“I’ll Be Missing You”).

Yet who knew that Slayer was about 30 percent more negative than Mr. Vandross — and that such calculations might say something about the mood of the country?

In a new paper, a pair of statisticians at the University of Vermont argue that linguistic analysis — not just of song lyrics but of blogs and speeches — could add a new and valuable dimension to a growing area of mass psychology: the determination of national well-being.

“We argue that you can use this data as a kind of remote sensor of well-being,” said Peter Sheridan Dodds, a co-author of the new paper, with Christopher M. Danforth; both are in the department of mathematics and statistics.

“It’s information people are volunteering; they’re not being surveyed in the usual way,” Dr. Dodds went on. “You mess with people when you ask them questions about happiness. You’re not sure if they’re trying to make you happy, or have no idea whether they’re happy. It’s reactive.”

Psychologists have been trying to get a handle on the elusive nature of happiness in individuals for decades, usually by asking: How happy are you: Very? Somewhat? Not so often? The answers reveal that people are fairly stable in their self-reports, even after suffering severe injuries or winning the lottery.

In recent years policymakers and governments have begun to conduct similar surveys on a mass level, as a way to get a reading on an entire population’s mood. In Europe, for instance, researchers have conducted such studies for years, as a guide to how countries respond to economic and policy trends. (Denmark has consistently placed first, for reasons some Danes attribute to inborn modest expectations.)


Benedict Carey
New York Times