Are we happy yet? Facebook's National Happiness Index tracks our mood
Though unsurprising, the index's results confirm the principal reason we join social networking websites in the first place -- to meet and interact with friends and family. But the results also show how we are beginning to use sites like Facebook and Twitter as national gathering places during major events, including when major tragedies strike.
To build the new index, Facebook researchers culled the stats from two years of anonymous "status updates" from the site's 100 million users in the United States. Adam D. I. Kramer, a University of Oregon student who created the index, toldThe New York Times the index could be "the first step in reorienting the nation's sense of self-worth."
"If we know money doesn't buy happiness," Kramer asked, "why are we optimizing for money?" In other words, we know what makes us happy, so why do we spend so much time working for other things?
On his blog, Kramer said Facebook "adapted a collection of positive and negative emotion words built by social psychologists," including positive or happy words like "happy," "yay" and "awesome," and negative or unhappy words, such as "sad," "doubt" and "tragic." The company said it also conducted "a brief survey of some Facebook users, which showed that people who use more positive words, relative to the number of negative words, reported higher satisfaction with their lives."
The index found that Facebook users are happiest on traditional days of celebration and thankfulness, when families and friends have customarily gathered.
"Some of the happiest days include U.S. national holidays like Thanksgiving and Fourth of July, social holidays like Halloween and religious holidays including Christmas and Easter," the researchers found. "Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2008 -- when the U.S. was celebrating the election of President Barack Obama -- was over twice as happy as the average Wednesday."
Among the days when Facebook users were the least happy -- or at least expressed themselves that way online -- are two notable events: Jan. 22, 2008, the day Heath Ledger died, which happened to occur on a day Asian stock markets crashed; and June 25, 2009, the day Michael Jackson died.
The depth of the index's data illustrates just how much raw personal information millions of Americans are sharing online. It's no wonder some people have flat-out refused to join, in order to protect their privacy.
Cameron Marlow, the head of Facebook's 10-member research department told the Times's Noam Cohen that, "The type of things that people reveal on Facebook are the kind of things that sociologists have tried to collect through surveys for decades."
"Say I want to understand how the divorce rate is changing -- for a social scientist to produce a report on this, it would take a team of researchers, a company to collect the data," Marlow said. But on Facebook, Cohen observed, "people routinely provide such information in great detail as it happens in their lives."
The irony of the new index is that some people, including my colleague Anthony Massucci, are beginning to wonder if social media isn't making us less social and thus less happy. Just last week, Google CEO Eric Schmidt said that as society becomes more networked we as individuals will become less happy, because we'll always feel like we're "behind" as we face an ever-increasing onslaught of information from a wide variety of sources.
"There is evidence that humans as a group are less happy with more information because of ambiguity," Schmidt stated rather matter-of-factly. "Society will be much better, but individuals will be less happy because they'll feel more behind. My own advice to you is that there is an off button and it's important."
Hundreds of millions of people have flocked to social networking services like Facebook and Twitter as a way to share the effluvia of their daily lives. But social media is still in its infancy, and one wonders whether -- once the novelty wears off -- we all won't wind up a bit less happy, no matter how many positive tweets we send about Thanksgiving.
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