Researchers Find Word Optimism Is Linked to National Misery

Even Pollyanna changes her tune in times of war and economic hardship

Sad young man

Would you describe yourself as Pollyannaish? Even if your answer is no, most people answer yes to this question, and science has repeatedly shown the English language as a whole has a clear positive bias. But it turns out that there’s something capable of breaking humans’ linguistic lean toward positivity, reports The New York Times’ Steph Yin. Researchers analyzing books and newspapers from the last 200 years have concluded that national crises and hardships can make our language less positive.

In a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a group of researchers delve into “the Pollyanna principle”—the concept that people subconsciously lean toward the positive. Named after the optimistic heroine of Eleanor H. Porter’s sugar-sweet 1913 novel Pollyanna, the principle was developed in 1969 by researchers who posited that humans tend to use positive words more often than negative ones. Since then, it has been shown time and time again. In 2015, for example, researchers who looked at 100,000 of the most common words in ten languages found what they called “a universal positivity bias” across cultures.

Why are people more likely to use positive words? As Yin notes, that’s cause for debate among social scientists. But the authors of the new paper have a hypothesis. They argue that, despite its universality, linguistic positivity varies over time—and that it’s linked to fluctuations in national happiness.

To support their hypothesis, researchers delved into the history of word usage in the United States. They analyzed 1.3 million books archived in Google Books and published between 1800 and 2000 and nearly 15 million articles published by the New York Times during the same time period, calculating the number of books and articles that used positive and negative words. Then they looked for evidence that changes in national circumstances could be connected to the frequency of positive and negative words.

Using an economic indicator called “the Misery Index” and war casualty figures, the researchers found that in years with high economic hardship and war, authors used more negative words. Happier years, on the other hand, were connected to happier words. Even so, the researchers found that over the last two centuries, negative words have become more common.

Why bother verifying that happier people use happier words? For one, the connection points to the importance of word usage as a way to assess how miserable or happy a society is at a given point in time. And Morteza Dehghani, who co-authored the paper, says in a release that the growing negative word count over the past 200 years “is an indicator that happiness may be on the decline in the U.S.”

Next, say researchers, social scientists can delve further into the possible links between historical language and happiness. If nothing else, the study shows that it’s important to consider historical context alongside other factors like environment or cognition when it comes to the Pollyanna principle. And the results of the study may make you more aware of the social factors at play when you use glum (or glad) language in your everyday life.