In addition to improving quality of life, higher subjective wellbeing leads to fewer health problems and higher productivity, making subjective wellbeing a focal issue among researchers and governments. However, it is difficult to estimate how happy people were during previous centuries. Here we show that a method based on the quantitative analysis of natural language published over the past 200 years captures reliable patterns in historical subjective wellbeing. Using sentiment analysis on the basis of psychological valence norms, we compute a national valence index for the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany and Italy, indicating relative happiness in response to national and international wars and in comparison to historical trends in longevity and gross domestic product. We validate our method using Eurobarometer survey data from the 1970s and demonstrate robustness using words with stable historical meanings, diverse corpora (newspapers, magazines and books) and additional word norms. By providing a window on quantitative historical psychology, this approach could inform policy and economic history.
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The data necessary to reproduce the analyses presented in this article are provided at https://github.com/warwickpsych/NationalValenceIndex.
The code necessary to reproduce the analyses presented in this article is provided at https://github.com/warwickpsych/NationalValenceIndex.
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We thank colleagues for discussions on this research, especially S. Allen, S. Becker, S. Broadberry, N. Crafts, R. Duch, A. Oswald, L. Pascali, G. Ricco, D. Ronayne, J. Smith and T. Van Rens; and T. Engelthaler and L. Ying for research assistance. This work was supported by a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award WM160074 (to T.T.H.), the Alan Turing Institute (to T.T.H. and C.I.S.), and The Center for Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy at the University of Warwick (to D.S. and E.P.). This research used cloud computing resources kindly provided through a Microsoft Azure for Research Award. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Hills, T.T., Proto, E., Sgroi, D. et al. Historical analysis of national subjective wellbeing using millions of digitized books. Nat Hum Behav 3, 1271–1275 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-019-0750-z
Social Indicators Research (2021)