New technology developing a thermometer for happiness

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Courtesy of USA Today


Two Vermont professors are part of a movement that seeks to leverage technological advancements to measure global happiness.

It’s been defined by everyone from Plato to The Beatles. It’s mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. Most of us are in search of it.

Now two professors are tracking your happiness using a device called a hedonometer, which records and charts the global psyche in real time based on the millions of words posted to Twitter each day.

Although some critics are skeptical about applying quantitative methods to so elusive an emotion, the researchers, along with a national organization and several clubs across college campuses, suggest the hedonometer’s findings could be helpful to policy makers.

“Our work has told us something very important,” University of Vermont mathematics Professor Peter Dodds said. “People end up thinking the things they can measure are the important things.”

The hedonometer pulls from Twitter’s Gardenhose feed, a sampling of about 50 million messages tweeted each day, with the 10,000 most common words analyzed and given a happiness factor on a 9-point scale. The results are then posted to, a website launched April 30.

“Twitter is not everything, but it provides a great test and a fairly good reflection of what people are doing,” Dodds said. “The instrument is a composite, so we will never just analyze one word for happiness.”

The hedonometer functions much as a thermometer, his colleague and fellow math professor Chris Danforth explained in an email. Taking the temperature of one molecule (in this case, a tweet) might not reveal a whole lot, but the aggregate picture can be meaningful.

Most recently, their data showed that the day of the Boston Marathon bombings was the saddest in five years.

The nature of the tweets on April 15 pushed the hedonometer to its lowest point ever, showed. Dodds said the three most common phrases that day were “Boston bombings,” “thoughts and prayers” and “send donations.”

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“That’s really the narrative of what happened,” he said. “And if you think about how journalists are trying to handle Twitter at the moment, we see this tool as a very salient thing. Language is social technology.”

Dodds and Danforth said they hope their instrument— which will soon incorporate sources like the BBC and Google Trends and translate words from French, Spanish, Russian and Arabic— could complement indices like the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which monitors prosperity.

Miles away in Montpelier, co-founders of Gross National Happiness (GNH) Linda Wheatley and Tom Barefoot agree.

“For years, ‘happiness’ was a taboo subject because you couldn’t measure it,” Barefoot said. “New technologies and neuroscience have given us a set of tools to measure internal states of well-being.”

GNH, a U.S. chapter of a similar organization that began in the United Kingdom, works with partner groups to promote the measure of happiness as an indicator for progress, just as the government in Bhutan has done since 1971.

GNH is creating a curriculum based on its research at the Chautauqua Institution in New York. The hope is that more institutions will use GNH survey results and data from the hedonometer to design programs focused on happiness, and find ways to boost it.

“The culture at any college is demanding,” Barefoot said. “I think creating happier communities, particularly on a campus where there’s already experimentation, is key.”

Millennials are getting on board with the happiness movement:

In 2009, Harvard doctoral student Matt Killingsworth created an app for the iPhone called Track Your Happiness with similar objectives to the hedonometer. In 2006, a Harvard course geared toward studying happiness, “Positive Psychology,” saw record enrollment.

Harvard is also home to the Happiness Project, a variation of a happiness club that has appeared at colleges nationwide including Northwestern University, Penn State and the University of Texas-Austin, USA TODAY reported in April.

Members contacted for this article largely agreed that the purpose of these clubs was simply to make people on campus happy. Northwestern senior Kyle Richardson, who leads his school’s Happiness Club, said he was interested in the hedonometer and GNH, but was skeptical about their methodology.

“Measuring student happiness at a university is a laudable goal, but I’m not sure it’s feasible,” Richardson said.

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