Building a Historical Index of Happiness Using Google Books

Yves here. I’m skeptical of the idea of a “historical index” since the idea of happiness as a goal is very much tied to cultural norms, which have in turn been shaped by advertising (see the important Adam Curtis series “Century of the Self” for an in-depth treatment). For instance, crudely speaking, Ancient Rome had two ideas for the well-lived life, one the Stoic, that contentment was found in the performance of one’s duty, the other, the Epicurean, which was to seek to cultivate equanimity by avoiding hassles (as in disagreeable people, circumstances) and finding pleasant company and surroundings. I welcome experts to provide input, but my impression based on my limited reading is neither would have placed much stock in the giddy high that most Americans equate with “happiness”.

Given the social pressure in America to be or at least appear happy, I doubt self-reporting of happiness. But what I find striking about the data below is despite the fact that America is increasing obsessed with happiness, if you look at the charts below, we in the US have done a lousy job of achieving it, even with all sorts of medication to blunt unhappiness plus the high odds of happiness grade inflation. And the results also indicate that the French were much happier on the eve of the Revolution than now. That presumably reflects sample bias, in that the educated French, a small subset of the population, were the ones writing books.

By Thomas Hills, Professor of Psychology, Warwick University; Eugenio Proto, Associate Professor, Warwick University; and Daniel Sgroi, Associate Professor of Economics, Warwick University. Originally published at VoxEU

With records of subjective wellbeing going back less than half a century, this column asks if we can know the impact of key past events on the happiness of our ancestors. It presents a new historical index that draws on millions of digitised books in the Google Books corpus of words using sentiment analysis. The index – which goes back to the 1776 US Declaration of Independence, 200 years earlier than any other index of happiness – makes it possible to analyse the historical drivers of happiness in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK and the US.

Calls from UK Prime Minister David Cameron, the United Nations’ World Happiness Report, the OECD’s Better Life Index, along with psychologists and economists, all reflect on the need to develop a better understanding of subjective wellbeing (‘happiness’). Though many contemporary economies have tracked crime, education and economic production for the best part of a century, subjective wellbeing only began to become a staple of world economic indicators in the 1970s.

Calls from UK Prime Minister David Cameron, the United Nations’ World Happiness Report, the OECD’s Better Life Index, along with psychologists and economists, all reflect on the need to develop a better understanding of subjective wellbeing (‘happiness’). Though many contemporary economies have tracked crime, education and economic production for the best part of a century, subjective wellbeing only began to become a staple of world economic indicators in the 1970s.

Unlike national income accounting, which initiated the collection of GDP in the 1930s, subjective wellbeing is a rather young indicator. Though there have been successful projects to roll back GDP (e.g. Bolt and van Zanden 2014, Broadberry 2015), attempts to construct historical series for wellbeing have been notably lacking. Without such a series, we are left wondering how wellbeing responds to key historical events, such as expansionary monetary policies, education and longevity.

But if constructing historical series for wellbeing makes sense, how can we extend existing measures when direct survey evidence was only initiated in the 1970s? The key insight in our new research paper (Hills et al. 2015) is that language conveys sentiment, and that the growing availability of digitised text provides unprecedented resources to construct a quantitative history of wellbeing based on historical language use.

In particular, the foundation of our work involves combining multiple large collections of texts of natural language going back two centuries with state-of-the-art methods for deriving public mood (i.e. sentiment) from language. The recent digitisation of books, newspapers and other sources of natural language – such as the Google Books Ngram database – represent historically unprecedented amounts of data (‘big data’) on what people thought and wrote over the past few centuries (see Michel 2011). These databases have already proved fruitful in detecting large-scale changes in language, which in turn correlate with social and demographic change, for instance in Hills and Adelman (2015).

These data offer the capacity to infer public mood using sentiment analysis. Deriving sentiment from large collections of written text represents a growing scientific endeavour. Examples include recovering large-scale opinions about political candidates, predicting stock market trends, understanding diurnal and seasonal mood variation, detecting the social spread of collective emotions, and understanding the impact of events with the potential for large-scale social impact such as celebrity deaths, earthquakes and economic bailouts (e.g. Pang and Lee 2008). Applying the same methods to historical text we can begin to produce more quantitative accounts of national happiness.

In the approach we take, sentiment measures are based on valence norms for thousands of words. These already exist in the literature and are collected from a large group of individuals who are asked to rate a list of words on how those words make them feel (e.g. Gilbert 2007). In the present case, valence norms based on the affective norms for English words have already been collected for five languages: English, French, Spanish, Italian, and German.

We applied these norms to the Google Books corpus for each of these languages, allowing us to derive a new index for subjective wellbeing going back to 1776, which we tentatively call the HPS index. An initial comparison with subjective wellbeing collected with survey data is shown in Figure 1. The data reflect the residuals after controlling for country fixed effects and clearly show a strong and significant correlation with our measure based on historical language.

Figure 1. Comparison between survey measures of life satisfaction and residuals (after controlling for country fixed effects) for our measure based on sentiment from historical text.

proto fig1 16 sep

Note: The grey area represents the 95% confidence interval.

Rolling the text-derived measures of subjective wellbeing back to 1776 reveals a quantitative picture of how public sentiment has changed across the six countries we considered: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK and the US. Though we make clear in our research that we need to exercise caution when examining very long-run trends (as language itself has evolved so much), it is nonetheless clear in Figure 2 that short-term events, such as the exuberance of the 1920s, the Depression era, and World Wars I and II show clear and distinguishable influences on subjective wellbeing.

Figure 2. The average valences over the period 1776-2000.

proto fig2 16 sep

Note: For all countries the vertical red lines correspond to 1789 (the year of the French Revolution), World War I (1915-18) and World War II (1938-45). In the five European countries, a line is draw for 1848 (the year of the revolutions). In the US, the vertical lines represent: the Civil War (1861-65), the Wall Street Crash (1929), the end of Korean War (1953) and the fall of Saigon (1975); in the UK, the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15). In Spain, the starting of Civil War (1936); in France, the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15), the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1870); for Germany, the vertical lines represent the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15), the Franco-Prussian War and unification (1870), Hitler’s ascendency to power (1934), the reunification (1990); for Italy, the unification (1861-70).

Why is a Quantitative History of Wellbeing Important?

The fledgling state of wellbeing data has limited our collective ability to understand how wellbeing responds to different historical events. This has in turn limited the use of wellbeing in public policy, health initiatives and financial decision-making. In practice, if subjective wellbeing is to become a key factor in guiding our collective behaviour, then we need accounts of wellbeing on a par with those of GDP.

Using wellbeing as a measure to guide behaviour, however, takes more than the desire to simply improve wellbeing. As noted by Gilbert (2007), people have problems understanding so-called ‘affective forecasting’ – the ability to understand how one will feel in the future – and with this also comes a limited capacity to understand how prior events and decisions influenced our past happiness.

To overcome this, especially at the government level, we must develop our capacity to predict how wellbeing responds to both deliberate and unexpected events. Better predicting economic fortunes was the motivation of the national income accounting, which later became GDP, following the Depression in the 1930s. Of course, now numerous decisions are based on GDP, despite a near global acceptance that, in the words of John F Kennedy, “it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile” (Presidential Library and Museum, North Dakota).

Thus, as with GDP, governments and other agencies recognise the importance of this additional ‘emotional accounting’ and, by all accounts, they want to understand how better to use it to improve future wellbeing. But to do that we need historical informed accounts of what this means, and our index represents a first attempt.

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  1. Moneta

    Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

    Can it get any more vague?

    What is better… a healthy life to 65 or a life full of physical pain to 90? Life at what cost?

    To gain freedom you have to gain some mastery and skill but as you gain these elements, you become more constained by the established environment. Free will is an illusion. You are always constrained by your genetics, your environment and your past. When you feel you must choose a career that goes against what your body was made to do so as to avoid poverty, how can this be considered free will?

    What is happiness? Is it constant or is it fleeting? Is it intense or like a low hum?

    When a nation’s philosophy is based on such ill defined goals, is it any wonder that it could go down the wrong road?

    1. Moneta

      The left seems to think government can fix everything. A little nudge here, a new rule there… But the need to create these rules is a sign that the culture is not promoting the desired behaviors. But behaviors emanate from community.

      IMO, it’s not government that creates community, it’s community that creates government….

      For the last 40 years, the left, in the name of freedom, has been squishing the long established rules with a gross disregard for economics. The right, also in the name of freedom, has been accepting these changes, supported with debt, because they were profitable and filling their pockets. When t comes to the money system, the right has been in charge all along! The left has been completely blind to this.

      But really, what is freedom? The left and the right have completely different definitions.

      1. Lowfiron

        The left tries to regulate exploitation with a goal of fairness. I agree they have failed for the most part, they have not been successful in preventing economic inequality. They made some headway in improvement of air quality and setting aside wilderness and improving water quality. The big fail was been carbon pumped into the atmosphere. All this is an effort to improve the quality of life. People’s sense of well-being is eroding because of the failure to get a handle on global warming and economic fairness. The right is in denial as far as these conditions go. It likely will get worse. The term ‘happiness’ is BS because happiness is transitory. Well-being is a better term.

        1. different clue

          If the New Dealers/ Democrats could have been said to contain any “leftists”, then those “leftists” made some strong progress towards economic and social-rank fairness. Their safeguards for these things were strong enough that the “antileft” had to spend several decades systematically plotting to tear these laws and safeguards down.

          But perhaps recent leftists find the old New Dealers to be terribly unfashionable and hardly modern. And yes, those recent leftists have achieved precious little, and stood by while a lot was destroyed.

          But hey! Gay marriage is legal now. So there is that.

        2. hunkerdown

          Liberals aren’t leftist. That’s only their marketing schtick. If you see what appears to be leftism, scratch it and you’ll see a market underneath. What is identity politics but the commoditization and merchandising of self-definition?

          Leftists have no interest in simply being the ones driving the bulldozer of oppression. We’d rather glass the engine and chop it up for scrap.

          1. Moneta

            Yes. We have to differentiate those who want change from those who want fairness… many of those who want change just want the kind of change that will let them into “the boys club”.

    2. tegnost

      I have to say I think our nations philosophy is make money, make more money, and then make money on top of that, and if it doesn’t make you happy whats your problem? The problem here is that the philosophy is producing negative results. The cognitive dissonance then leads into other psychological frameworks, though I’m not a particularly religious person a brief glance over the seven deadly sins can inspire the mind to the possibilities there. The college I attended required a comparative religion course, the bible vs. the I Ching, the overall takeaway was that these texts are social contracts. The atheistic bent of the present day has nothing to replace these contracts with. I’d guess I’m somewhere in the agnostic/multireligical zone seeing religion having a place in society for the above mentioned contractual effects.

      1. Moneta

        I went to a catholic school run by nuns and the year we analyzed all the religions, I came to the same social contract conclusion you did.. and became agnostic.

        When most of these religious social contracts were established, many of the rules made sense at that point in time. These were based on the needs of the collectivity.

        Many of today’s religions have refused to adapt these rules which have become dogma and/or tradition for tradition’s sake.

        When religions don’t account for the change in circumstances (geography, climate, demographics, resources, etc), the rules get broken leading to the general decline in well-being.

      2. susan the other

        Because in our ignorance we have equated and defined money with wealth. That is the real obscene relic. Money is nothing more than cooperation. But those who are holding old fantasies refuse to acknowledge this fact. Money deniers. The only reason money is even pertinent to happiness is because everything must be bought and paid for in this “economy.”

        1. different clue

          Frederic Soddy, among others, tried to design a reality-based economics taking account of that basic fact, among others.

          1. Skippy

            Soddy only attempted to commodify money based on a quasi empirical methodology, which has nothing to do with susan’s observation about cooperation.

        2. Moneta

          When someone says to me that there is more to life than money, I can’t take it! They are right but it always seems to be those who would be the most miserable humans beings if they lived in a bidonville.

          Most of them do not get that their “more to life activities” are based on the fact they have more than enough money in this system!

  2. Steve H.

    The most important thing I see is the vertical line, which is ascending, in Germany as Hitler came to power.

    Happiness for one does not mean happiness for all.

    This goes to the question, which is more better, a bit of better for the many, or a buttload of better for the one?

    1. BEast


      One must also ask who was writing, and about whom. With the exception of those who narrated their stories to those who could write, (such as former slave Sojourner Truth), illiterate people did not write.

      Illiterate people would doubtless skew towards people who were poor, people who lived in areas without mandatory education, women, and, of course, slaves. It was against the law to teach a slave to read.

      And even once people were minimally literate, who would not have had the time to write books, or the connections to get those books published?

      Now, who might have been less likely to be happy with the state of society in the 1800s?

  3. so

    “and what is good, Phaedrus,
    And what is not good-
    Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”
    Robert M. Pirsig

  4. Dan Lynch

    How ’bout using suicide rate as the measure of happiness? Happiness is subjective, suicide is factual.

    Suicide was rare in traditional Native American culture, now it is common.

    1. jrs

      Not bad but it’s cultural. Cultures can take a more positive or negative view of suicide, it can be viewed as a sin, a failure, or the honorable thing to do depending. I say we use antidepressant use :) (yes that’s cultural too, but probably less so)

  5. Uahsenaa

    When this sort of research was first being performed in 2005 or so, I groaned with one of the loudest groans of my life, because people in language and literature departments, who really ought to know better, were basically behaving as if words never change meaning. In fact, this sort of research heavily depends on particular words describing the same thing over long periods of time, when, in fact, they can change quite quickly. It only took about half a century for “gay” to go from being an adjective meaning “jovial” or “lively” to meaning “homosexual.”

    What is more, as Yves notes, concepts of happiness are 1) culturally determined, and 2) quite often predicated on the misery of others. For instance, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there was the nigh philosophical concept of “felicity” that was common both in novels and in sermons (still a common literary form then). Felicity implied a happiness derived from a general orderliness: order in one’s life, one’s business, etc. So, a marriage could be as “felicitous” as a garden. In fact, plates of well-ordered English style gardens were commonly used in the frontispieces of works in which “felicity” figured prominently. As you can imagine, this happiness-in-order for some was predicated on the slavish, miserable labor of the many who created and maintained it for them. Since the people who might indulge in felicity never would stoop to watering or pruning or plowing or cooking or doing any of the things that made the life of the gentry–and felicity was really their domain–possible.

    I suggested then, when the ngram database was first presented to us at Michigan (since it was one of the first to join the Google Books project), what I always say now about these ventures into the so-called digital humanities: you’ll get far more out of actually reading the books these words hail from than performing elaborate statistical transformations that, in the end, say very little.

    1. Jim Haygood

      ‘For instance, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there was the nigh philosophical concept of “felicity” that was common both in novels and in sermons.”

      Yeah, back then they also used to jabber on about something called “liberty,” a word which has fallen into complete disuse since it was replaced by “compliance.”

      A compliant life is a good life, comrade.

  6. Alex morfesis

    My best intimate relationships have been with women who never smile but always laugh…the ones with the big teeth face on all the time, not so much…but that is my experience…

    In general, the weak fear the many and are always trying to step in front of Destiny…but she has a train ticket to Tahiti and tomorrow is always Saturday..

    Life is to be lived…not over examined…this notion one can look back and find patterns…how cute…would the patient like a lollipop after seeing the good doctor ?

    there are not 168 hours in a week…that is arbitrary…there was no 30th of April until Julius the carved up former Roman leader was bored one day…

    during the roaring 20’s, about 2 percent of the population had attended college and 1% had an actual degree…

    Life, liberty and the pursuit of silliness…happiness is overrated…

  7. participant-observer-observed

    There is an inherent flaw in this thesis due to the sample bias. Literacy historically was the privilege of those farthest away from the bottom rung of Maslow’s “pyramid of needs” such as indentured laborers, women, subsistence farmers, etc.

    In other words, those most likely to experience hardship and gratuitous oppression and exploitation are the least likely to be represented in any primary literary sources.

    If the study focused on responses to particular traumas, for example, across class and social positions and over historical time, the results might be more compelling.

    “Sampling the choir” from the “preaching to the choir” set?

  8. craazyman

    well, a little slow off the analytical mark are we all today?

    I can’t believe nobody, and not even the post authors, remarked upon the “big bowl of pasta and jug of wine” in the room.

    Italy is so happy it needs its own Y-axis scale! My God how did you PG post analysts miss that one.

    Wow. It’s overwhelming how much happier Italy is than anybody else. Even when Italy is miserable, it’s happier than some countries when they’re happy (I’m not saying which ones, but it might start with a G)

    Wow. I wonder what this means for ECB policy or even Bundesbank policy under Herr Weidmann. It’s only science, at this point, given the methodological and even logical rigor that no doubt underpins this analysis. Who could argue with emprical evidence. Even the word “valence” sounds impressive. It impressed me, but I’m too lazy to look it up.

    At any rate, we can perhaps decompose these results into Southern Italy and Northern Italy and then do an Eigenvector analysis to see if there are certain happiness variables that either define and/or transcend each region. It might be appalling to find, for example, that western civilization can be costrued as a weighted constellation of factors that produces a statistically signifigant eigenvector of misery. Even the word eigenvector! Think about what language that is. ahhahahahahahahaahah. OK, sorry about that. I like math, actually. There must be Italians who do to. I can think of a few right now. Like Enrico Fermi, Gallileo, Wolfgang pauli (OK he was Austriian/Swiss but he sure sounnds Italian to me.)

    So I guess we can a) learn Italian, b) drink more wine, c) lay around and waste time, d) pay more attention to gentleman classic Italian fashion, e) consider the techniques of Renaissance masters from Italy, f) have a regard for Durer as an artist but suspect his temperment and g) print money, and then we’ll be happy! sounds like a plan to me

  9. craazyman

    well DELETE-IT snagged another scholarly contribution to post-Post analysis.

    this is like sports talk radio and you get censored!

    This was a genius level comment that revealed facts of the post nobody, not even the authors, evidently preceived. It actually rises from the level of ‘commentary” to “scientific analysis”. The algo is getting rusty, I think. It’s not as sharp as it used to be, when only drivel got snagged

    It would be a shame if the world had to intuit these facts of happiness, that I was able to analyze in a scientific manner, by the accidents of trial and error.

  10. flora

    “…social pressure in America to be or at least appear happy….” Yes. Dr. Pangloss demands you be happy in this the best of all possible worlds. “The Century of the Self” is an excellent reference point. Interesting that after 30 years of flat wage growth for the 99% and a sense of falling behind and increased financial desperation we now see the rise of the “fledgling field” of well-being studies. Count me skeptical about said “fledgling field’s” purpose.

  11. susan the other

    This is just more agnotology. Like Stiglitz doing a huge (absurdly so) study on how inequality “happened.” OK. Whatever. We do know it did happen. Unhappiness happened along with it. Why waste our time analyzing the peripheral nonsense? We know what makes people content – it is wellbeing and security. Let’s provide that and let the chips fall.

    1. jrs

      “Thus, as with GDP, governments and other agencies recognise the importance of this additional ‘emotional accounting’ and, by all accounts, they want to understand how better to use it to improve future wellbeing. But to do that we need historical informed accounts of what this means, and our index represents a first attempt.”

      We need more data to beg and plead the government and the plutocrats for which is stands to please, please, pretty please, care about human well being.

      Well if it works I guess …

  12. Teejay

    Just from the title my cynicisms meter went off the charts. ” See we’re better off today than back in the day so quit yer bitching.”

  13. cnchal

    Why is a Quantitative History of Wellbeing Important?

    It’s a bullshit jawb generator for the professors.

      1. jrs

        There’s not enough jobs to go around changing bedpans or shoveling manure anyway. Actually quite true of course. Corporate medicine often reduces spending on such necessary and vital routine hospital work like changing the bedpans.

  14. cwaltz

    I’d be completely interested in seeing the demographics of this happiness index. For example, did they count the slaves as three fifths of a person or was it their happiness did not matter during that time period? Did women even have a say in this prior to 1920?

    I guess knowing the “happiness of the white male” throughout history might be helpful to a white male but I have to question whether or not it could be utilized as an excuse to go back to the “good ol days” where you were allowed to own another human being and women were essentially property with the caveat that they couldn’t be sold once you married them because, after all, we were so much “happier” back then.

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