Researchers have built a new index that uses data from books and newspaper to track levels of national happiness from 1820


Was there such a thing as ‘the good old days’ when people were happier?

Are current Government policies more or less likely to increase their citizens’ feelings of wellbeing?

Using innovative new methods researchers at the University of Warwick, University of Glasgow Adam Smith Business School and The Alan Turing Institute in London have built a new index that uses data from books and newspaper to track levels of national  happiness   from 1820.

Their research could help governments to make better decisions about policy priorities.

Governments the world over are making increasing use of “national happiness” data derived from surveys to help them consider the impact of policy on national wellbeing. Unfortunately, data for most countries is only available from 2011 onwards, and for a select few from the mid 1970s.

This makes it hard to establish long-run trends, or to say anything about the main historical causes of happiness.

In order to tackle this problem, a team of researchers including Professor Thomas Hills (Warwick and The Alan Turing Institute), Professor Eugenio Proto (Glasgow), Professor Daniel Sgroi (Warwick), and Dr. Chanuki Seresinhe (The Alan Turing Institute) took a key insight from psychology – that more often than not what people say or write reveals much about their underlying happiness level – and developed a method to apply it to online texts from millions of books and newspapers published over the past 200 years.

The main source of language used for the analysis was the Google Books corpus, a collection of word frequency data for over 8 million books – that’s more than 6 percent of all books ever published.

The method uses psychological valence norm – values of happiness that can be derived from text—for thousands of words in different languages to compute the relative proportion of positive and negative language for four different nations (the U.S., UK, Germany and Italy).

The research team also controlled for the evolution of language, to take into account the fact that some words change their meaning over time.

The new index was validated against existing survey-based measures and proven to be an accurate guide to the national mood. One theory as to why books and newspaper articles are such a good source of data is that editors prefer to publish pieces which match the mood of their readers.

Studying the index, the researchers found that:

  • Increases in national income do generate increases in national happiness but it takes a huge rise to have a noticeable effect at the national level
  • An increase in longevity of one year had the same effect on happiness as a 4.3 percent increase in GDP
  • One less year of war had the equivalent effect on happiness of a 30 percent rise in GDP
  • In post-war UK the worst period for national happiness occurred around the appropriately named “Winter of Discontent.”
  • In post-war U.S. the lowest point of the index coincides with the Vietnam War and the evacuation of Saigon.

Commenting on the findings, Professor Thomas Hills said: “What’s remarkable is that national subjective well-being is incredibly resilient to wars.

Even temporary economic booms and busts have little long-term effect. We can see the American Civil War in our data, the revolutions of 48′ across Europe, the roaring 20’s and the Great Depression.

But people quickly returned to their previous levels of subjective well-being after these events were over. Our national happiness is like an adjustable spanner that we open and close to calibrate our experiences against our recent past, with little lasting memory for the triumphs and tragedies of our age.”

Professor Eugenio Proto added: “Our index is an important first step in understanding people’s satisfaction in the past.

Looking at the Italian data, it is interesting to note a slow but constant decline in the years of fascism and a dramatic decline in the years after the last crisis.”

Professor Daniel Sgroi said: “Aspirations seem to matter a lot: after the end of rationing in the 1950s national happiness was very high as were expectations for the future, but unfortunately things did not pan out as people might have hoped and national happiness fell for many years until the low-point of the Winter of Discontent.”

Dr. Chanuki Seresinhe said: “It was really important to ensure that the changing meaning of words over time was taken into account.

For example, the word “gay” had a completely different meaning in the 1800s than it does today.

We processed terabytes of word co-occurrence data from Google Books to understand how the meaning of words has changed over time, and we validate our findings using only words with the most stable historical meanings.”

The paper “Historical analysis of national subjective wellbeing using millions of digitized books’ is published today (14 October 2019) in Nature Human Behaviour.

More information: Historical analysis of national subjective wellbeing using millions of digitized books, DOI: 10.1038/s41562-019-0750-z ,

Journal information: Nature Human Behaviour
Provided by University of Warwick

A growing literature has addressed the science of happiness, or subjective well-being (SWB). Although material well-being is a critical ingredient of human well-being, it has also been recognized that an increase in material well-being beyond a certain threshold (i.e. once basic wants have been satisfied) does not guarantee further increases in happiness [12] (although this point has also been debated [3]).

This has influenced many scholars to seek other factors that determine subjective well-being [45].

In this context, a considerable number of studies have examined personal values, goals, or aspirations as important factors associated with subjective well-being [57].

Personal values may affect individuals’ daily lives as well as major decisions regarding their lives and futures, shaping their life trajectories, social relationships, and subjective well-being in the long run.

For example, it is well known that holding intrinsic values, such as personal growth and affiliation, is positively associated with happiness, in contrast to holding extrinsic values, such as economic success and popularity [58].

These studies clearly suggest that happiness is influenced by the personal values people hold in various life domains.

However, with the limitations of previous studies, questions remain regarding the association of personal values with subjective well-being.

Although it is meaningful that previous studies have captured the relative propensity of individuals by using composite measures of personal values and goals [58], less is known about whether and how personal values attached to specific life domains are associated with happiness.

For example, are people who prioritize family happier than those who prioritize money?

Is valuing religion more strongly associated with happiness than family?

These questions motivated the current study to directly investigate how prioritizing specific life domains relates to happiness.

Recent studies have shown that prioritizing time more highly than money is positively associated with happiness [910].

Individuals may choose to allocate more of their time to making money, but often do so at the expense of neglecting social relationships (spending time with family, friends, and the community).

The millionaire rapper and songwriter Sean “Diddy” Combs recently said in an interview that “I can always make more money, but I can’t make time”, which expresses the ideas that

(a) investing in relationships does not cost money, but

(b) making more money is often traded off against other uses of time.

It has been discussed that prioritizing time over money is beneficial for happiness because it can improve the quality of social relationships [910].

Although a recent study has shown that prioritizing family over work and leisure results in higher life satisfaction [11], most studies have compared a limited number of contrasting domains (i.e., time vs money, family vs. work), but not included diverse life domains together. Valuing specific life domains, such as family, power, money, or religion, not only indicates personal values and attitudes toward life, but also affects individual behaviors and decision making.

Furthermore, most studies regarding personal values and happiness have been conducted in Western societies, with a few exceptions [812], and have analyzed non-representative samples, such as convenience samples or samples of specific groups, such as college students [4813].

It is therefore worth investigating these relationships using a representative sample in a non-Western societal setting such as South Korea. Korean society is traditionally founded on strong family-oriented values derived from Confucianism, although this has been weakening over the last several decades.

In addition, religious influence on individual life might be stronger than other East Asian countries, although relatively weaker compared to other Western countries. As of 2015, it is reported that about 43.9% of Koreans have a religion. Among those who have a religion, 35.4% are Buddhists and 62.9% are Christians [14].

Among the total population, 15.5% are Buddhists while 27.7% are Christians [14].

This suggests that South Korea has a unique socio-cultural context in relation to Christianity and traditional values, which distinguishes it from other East Asian countries. For example, it is reported that only 1.5% of Japanese population are Christians as of 2012 [15]. South Korean society is therefore somewhat unique in the East Asian region for simultaneously maintaining Confucian family-oriented values together with Christianity.

In the current study we sought to investigate the effects of one’s personal values regarding core life domains on happiness. We used the Korean General Social Survey (KGSS) of a nationally representative sample, collected over three years (i.e., 2007, 2008, and 2009), which asked respondents to indicate their most valued life domain among the 10 presented, such as family and money, and to rate their happiness. We classified the personal values into four categories: prioritizing social relationships, extrinsic achievements, physical self, and spirituality. We begin with a literature review on the human value system and associations between personal values and subjective well-being.

Literature review

The structure and content of human values

Exploring the human value system can increase understanding of the content of personal values embedded in the system, which can be used to classify diverse life domains into common categories based on the nature of those human values. Schwartz [1617] provided a two-dimensional circumplex model explaining the structure and content of human values.

According to Schwartz [1617], 10 types of values differentiated by motivational goals can be classified into four value dimensions: self-transcendence; self-enhancement; openness to change; conservation.

Each type of value may conflict with other values if it is located in the opposite direction of the value dimension [1617].

For example, self-transcendence, including universalism and benevolence, is opposite to self-enhancement, including achievement and power, while openness to change is opposite to conservation [17].

The contrast between self-enhancement and self-transcendence can be likened to the contrast between extrinsic and intrinsic values, although they are not synonymous. Intrinsic and extrinsic values are well-known descriptions of the content of human values and have been used to examine their associations with subjective well-being [1218].

Intrinsic values include personal growth, affiliation, community feeling, and physical health, whereas extrinsic values include financial success, image, and popularity, directed mainly toward external rewards [5]. In contrast to extrinsic values, intrinsic values are more related to psychological needs and fulfillment.

A few studies have explored and provided modified classifications of personal values based on early studies [451617].

Burroughs and Rindfleisch [19] conceptualized materialism as a self-centered value that is opposed to collective-oriented values like family, community ties, and religious fulfillment. Based on the studies of Schwartz [1617], materialism, achievement, hedonism, and power can be categorized into the dimension of self-enhancement, whereas religiosity can be categorized as self-transcendence [19]. Grouzet et al. [20] provided a modified two-dimensional value structure considering that some specific values can be neither intrinsic nor extrinsic. For example, spirituality is not classified as intrinsic or extrinsic value. Spirituality is included in self-transcendence, in the opposite direction of physical self (i.e., hedonism) [20].

Associations between personal values and happiness

Numerous studies have contrasted intrinsic and extrinsic values in terms of their associations with happiness. It has been widely observed that extrinsic values are negatively associated with happiness in Western as well as non-Western societies [818]. In contrast with intrinsic goals like self-acceptance, extrinsic values of economic success, popularity, and image are adversely associated with happiness in Peru [8], China [12], South Korea [13], and Japan [21], as well as in Western societies, such as Germany and the United States [18].

A specific indicator of extrinsic values, viz. materialism, is also adversely associated with overall subjective well-being [67], satisfaction with life in family [22], and work [23] and positively correlated with depression and anxiety [19].

A few studies have investigated more diverse or specific personal values. Compared with materialism, which is a self-centered value and similar to the dimension of self-enhancement, collective-oriented values, such as family, community and religious values, appear to be beneficial for well-being [19]. Spirituality measured by religious values or practice is positively associated with subjective well-being [719].

A longitudinal study has reported that prioritizing family over work and leisure results in higher life satisfaction [11]. Recent studies have also shown that prioritizing money more than time is adversely associated with happiness [910]. Although there are variations in terms of categorization of personal values, previous studies have provided quite consistent results showing that prioritizing extrinsic achievements, such as money, is adversely associated with subjective well-being in general.

Why are extrinsic or self-centered values adversely associated with happiness? On the one hand, it can be explained in that extrinsic values facilitate social comparison of oneself with others, which is harmful for subjective well-being.

Extrinsic achievements are more easily compared with others than are intrinsic achievements, such as self-fulfillment or attachment. For example, people with high levels of materialism are more likely to compare themselves with others [24].

With greater social comparison, there is higher likelihood of frustration and dissatisfaction with individual achievements. People who prioritize extrinsic aspirations, such as power, money, or status, tend to have more difficulty of achieving and being satisfied with their goals.

On the other hand, extrinsic values can be harmful for interpersonal and social relationships. Pursuing material gains is negatively associated with quality of interpersonal relationships [2526] and increases difficulty of achieving a family–work balance [27], which then decreases subjective well-being. People often need to decide whether they will spend time on social relationships or on extrinsic goals.

People prioritizing extrinsic values are less likely to invest in social relationships, such as family and friends, which can decrease the quality of social relationships that is important for happiness. Recent studies have similarly argued that valuing money more than time may have deleterious impacts on social relationships [910].

These studies suggest that self-centered values or valuing self-enhancement is harmful for happiness, whereas collective-centered values or valuing social relationships is beneficial.

In this context, specific life domains might be differentially associated with happiness according to the attribute and nature of life domains. It is probable that prioritizing a specific life domain is negatively associated with happiness as the life domain is more based on self-centered value or self-interest.

In contrast, we expect that life domains related to social relationships (alter-centered rather than self-centered) or self-transcendence are positively associated with happiness. In addition, life domains which have been classified as a same value category may have different effects on happiness depending on the degree to which they are self-centered value.

For example, although health is conceptualized as intrinsic value [520], it may have different meaning and effect for individuals compared with other intrinsic values or goals such as prioritizing family and friend.

Prioritizing health can be self-centered propensity more than other intrinsic values such as prioritizing family.

We classified the personal values regarding diverse life domains into four categories: prioritizing social relationships, extrinsic achievements, physical self, and spirituality, which reflects the different levels of self-centered propensity.


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