Science Focus - the home of BBC Science Focus Magazine
National happiness mapped over the last 200 years © Getty Images

National happiness mapped over the last 200 years

Published: 26th November, 2019 at 00:00
Subscribe to BBC Science Focus Magazine and get 6 issues for just £9.99

New research that maps happiness levels through history could help governments to implement better policies to improve public wellbeing.

Governments around the world are increasingly trying to measure people’s happiness levels so they can find out how their policies affect wellbeing. However, ‘happiness’ data is generally only available from the last decade, which makes it difficult to study long-term trends or to find out what made people happy in the past.


Now, scientists from the University of Warwick, the University of Glasgow and the Alan Turing Institute in London may have found a way to establish historical happiness levels by studying millions of books and newspapers published from 1820 to 2009.

According to psychological theory, you can gain an understanding about people’s emotions through what they say or write, with publications reflecting the national mood.

In order to carry out the analysis, the main source of the language information came from Google Books corpora, which contains word frequency data for eight million books.

Read more about happiness:

The researchers’ method calculated the values of happiness that can be derived from text – for thousands of words in different languages – to establish the relative proportion of positive and negative language for four different nations (the US, UK, Germany and Italy) through history.

This new method was compared to current survey-based measures and was found to be an accurate way to establish national mood. By studying the data, the researchers could see peaks and troughs in happiness over time, which often corresponded with key events, like the end of rationing, or recessions.

“What’s remarkable is that national subjective wellbeing is incredibly resilient to wars. Even temporary economic booms and busts have little long-term effect. We can see the American Civil War in our data, the revolutions of 1848 across Europe, the roaring 20s and the Great Depression. But people quickly returned to their previous levels of subjective wellbeing after these events were over,” said Prof Thomas Hills, who took part in the research.


The researchers also used the data to establish some interesting findings. For example, they found that one less year of war had an equivalent effect on happiness of a 30 per cent rise in GDP, and in post-war UK, the unhappiest period was the Winter of Discontent in 1978-1979.


Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.


Sponsored content