The Happiness of English

There are more positive words than negative ones in the written English language.

Aug 31, 2011
Jef Akst

WIKIMEDIA COMMONS, CHRISTOPH MICHELS

Across books, songs, even news publications and social media sites, positives words are used more commonly than negative ones, according to a new study published Monday (August 29) on arXiv, an online prepublication site widely used in the physical sciences.

Hypotheses regarding the reasons language evolved as it did are varied, including purely practical explanations such as coordinating social behaviors, like hunting, and more cultural explanations, like the support of altruism and cooperation. The answer, some anthropologists believe, may be found in the language itself.

In one of the most comprehensive analyses of the English language to date, mathematicians from Cornell University and the University of Vermont collated more than 10,000 words from four sources of text—Google Books, Twitter, The New York Times, and song lyrics. The words were scored on a scale of 1 to 9, with 1 being the most negative and 9 being the most positive. (The highest score was awarded to "laughter," which received an 8.5, while “terrorist” received the lowest, coming it at 1.3, according to Wired Science.)

Overall, the researchers found that positive words outnumbered negative ones, suggesting “a positivity bias” in the language, the authors wrote. “In our stories and writings we tend toward pro-social communication.” They added that future work is needed to determine the “positivity” of other languages and dialects, as well as the trends towards other emotions. Comparing the results could reveal interesting correlations between language characteristics and aspects of societal organization in different cultures around the world.