University of Vermont

Peter Dodds

Associate professor, mathematics and statistics

Peter Dodds

There's a cynicism with news people that most news is bad and the worst news gets the big story on the front page.

So one might expect the New York Times to contain, on average, more negative and unhappy types of words — like “war,” “ funeral,” “cancer,” “murder” — than positive, happy ones — like “love,” “peace” and “hero.” But new research shows just the opposite.

“English, it turns out, is strongly biased toward being positive,” said Peter Dodds, an applied mathematician at the University of Vermont. The UVM team’s study “Positivity of the English Language,” appeared in the journal PLoS ONE."

This new study complements another study by the same Vermont scientists that attracted wide media attention showing that average global happiness, based on Twitter data, has been dropping for the past two years. Combined, the two studies show that short-term average happiness has dropped — against the backdrop of the long-term fundamental positivity of the English language.

Universal positivity

In the new study, Dodds and his colleagues gathered billions of words from four sources: twenty years of the New York Times, the Google Books Project (with millions of titles going back to 1520), Twitter and a half-century of music lyrics.

“We looked at the top 5,000 words in each, in terms of frequency, and in all of those words you see a preponderance of happier words.”

Or, as they write in their study, “a positivity bias is universal,” both for very common words and less common ones and across sources as diverse as tweets, lyrics and British literature.