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Twitter study: Happiness rises the further you travel

About the author

Philip is a writer based in London. He writes on all areas of the sciences and its interactions with art and wider culture. He was previously an editor for the science journal Nature for two decades and is the author of many books on science, including The Self-Made Tapestry: Pattern Formation in Nature, H2O: A Biography of Water, Critical Mass (winner of the 2005 Aventis Prize for Science Books), and The Music Instinct. You can find out more at his website or blog.

Twitter happiness rises the further you travel

(Copyright: Thinkstock)

People’s tweets get significantly more positive in mood the greater the distance they are from home.

Feeling low? Over-worked, anxious, bored with life? A holiday will do your mood the world of good. Really it will: there’s now scientific proof. A team of researchers at the University of Vermont in the United States has found that tweets contain significantly more happy words the further from home they are sent.

This is the latest dispatch from an emerging discipline in which social-networking media are mined to gauge people’s moods and opinions. Twitter is one of the most fertile sources of information for this kind of study, partly because the comments are less guarded and self-conscious than responses to questionnaires (the social scientist’s traditional means of sampling opinion) but also because huge amounts of data are available, with automatically searchable content. What’s more, Twitter feeds sometimes come accompanied with useful information such as the tweeter’s profile and location.

Previous studies in the field of “twitterology” have, for example, monitored the spread of news, the demographics of different languages, and the correlations between obesity and expressions of hunger in particular populations. Since changes in public mood like brewing social unrest will show up on Twitter and other social media, governments, police forces and security organisations are showing an increasing interest in mining networks, raising questions about the right balance between privacy and security. Meanwhile, spotting the emergence and propagation of trends are a gift to marketing departments.

The new study of the link between happiness and geographical location by Christopher Danforth and colleagues at Vermont takes advantage of the “garden hose” public-access feed for Twitter, which makes freely available a random 10% of all messages posted. This provided the researchers with four billion tweets from the year 2011 to analyse.

Since Danforth and colleagues were interested in how the mood expressed in the messages correlated with the location from which they were sent, they sifted through this immense data set to pick out those tweets that were accompanied by the precise latitude and longitude of the sender’s mobile phone – a facility optionally available for tweets, which uses the Global Positioning System (GPS) to locate the message’s origin within a 10m (32ft) radius. About 1% of the messages included this information, giving a data set of 37 million messages sent by more than 180,000 individuals from all over the planet.

However, identifying where the sender is situated doesn’t in itself reveal what the researchers wanted to know. They were interested in how the message content varied with distance from home. But how could they know where “home” was?

It turns out that positional information disclosed by our mobile phones reveals this pretty clearly. In 2008 a team of researchers in the US used the locations of mobile phones – recorded by phone companies whenever calls are made – to track the trajectories of 100,000 (anonymised) individuals. They found that, as we might imagine, we tend to return over and over again to certain places, especially our homes and workplaces, and only rarely venture very far from these locations.

In much the same way, Danforth and colleagues could figure out the most common locations for each individual in their survey, and how widely the person tended to roam from those places. They found that people generally have two such preferred locations, just a short distance apart, which they attributed to the home and workplace.

How, then, do the messages differ when individuals are at home, at work, or further away? To assess the “happiness” of a tweet, the Vermont team has developed what they call a hedonometer: an algorithm that searches the text for words implying a positive or enjoyable context (such as “new”, “great”, “coffee” and “lunch”) or a negative one (“no”, “not”, “hate”, “damn”, “bored”). On this basis the hedonometer assigns each message a happiness score.

The authors report that the average happiness score first declines slightly for distances of around 1 km (0.62 miles) – the kind of distance expected for a short commute to work – and then rises steadily with increasing distances of up to several thousand kilometres. What’s more, individuals with a larger typical roaming radius use happy words more often – a result that probably reflects the higher socioeconomic status of such jet-setting types.

So it seems we’re least happy at work and most happy when we are farthest from home. At least, that’s the case for the roughly 15% of American adults who use Twitter, or to be even more cautious, for the English-speaking subset of those who chose to ‘geotag’ their tweets. One key question is whether this sample is representative of the population as a whole – Twitter is less used among older people, for example. It’s also an open question whether expressions of happiness in tweets are a true indicator of one’s state of mind – are you less likely to tweet about your holiday when the weather is awful and the family is fractious? But such quibbles aside, you might want to consider that costly flight to Bermuda or Kathmandu after all.

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