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5 Things Facebook Statuses Can Tell Us About The Pursuit Of Happiness


“The Well-Being Project” at Penn Positive Psychology Center recently gathered the results of 19 million Facebook status updates written by 136,000 participants. The center put the results in word clouds for the visual among us. Their tag, “Advancing understanding of human flourishing using language analysis” seems apropos, since Facebook users communicate through pictures and language (i.e., by posting a “status”).

January sees the highest depression rate of any other month, perhaps because it follows the stress and spending that often accompany the holidays. Here are five things the study found about the pursuit of happiness that may help anyone struggling to get from this year to the next.

1. Conscientiousness and Agreeableness Are Important to Happiness

This study analyzed language by age, sex, and personality. Let’s tackle the latter first, because it often fluctuates over time. The Well Being Study observed the “Big Five” psychological traits that contribute to personality: extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, openness, and neuroticism. Psychologists often say that the two factors within those five that predict happiness the most are conscientiousness and agreeableness.

Clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson says people who are highly agreeable and highly conscientious often get exploited. He says conscientiousness, “while it’s strongly related to life satisfaction and happiness,” is the opposite of neuroticism. Neuroticism, says the encyclopedia Britannica, “represents the degree to which a person experiences the world as distressing, threatening, and unsafe.”

So, generally speaking, the more conscientious you are the less likely you are to suffer from anxiety. You stabilize your environment because you’re predictable and steady. The less neurotic you are, the happier you are. Women tend to be higher in neuroticism, especially mothers, because traditionally they bear the burden of caring for children, who start out completely helpless and require incredible vigilance.

From the study: “High conscientiousness is characterized by traits such as being organized, responsible, practical, thorough, hardworking, and thrifty. The word cloud includes words reflecting achievement, school, and work (e.g., success, finals, to_work, work_tomorrow, long_day), and activities that support relaxation and balance (e.g., weekend, family, workout, vacation, day_off, lunch_with) and general enjoyment (e.g., much_fun, blessed, enjoying, wonderful).”

Even though people may not specifically talk this way because they are more (or less) conscientiousness, it’s useful to see the pattern of language as an indicator. If you’re unhappy, it’s worthwhile to note that more conscientious people are happier. The traits they’ve adapted, or constantly talk about, give their lives value, and others can learn to adapt these traits as well.

I was surprised to see so much emphasis on balance and down time in these word clouds, something that is much needed in society. Apparently, it really does aid in happiness.

2. People Who Focus on Positives Are Less Neurotic

Neuroticism has gotten a bit of a bad reputation, as it tends to indicate high emotional instability and sensitivity rather than an even keel. But it’s not always a bad thing. Neuroticism aids in caring for children, who tend to be clueless about their surroundings until they reach a certain age. For many people, anxiety can be a catalyst for accomplishing difficult tasks.

However, studies also show that the higher the person is in neuroticism, the unhappier he or she often is. In a study linking neuroticism with mood disorders, researcher Richard Zinbarg says “neuroticism makes people more susceptible to the negative emotions — anxiety, depression, irritability, anger.” Essentially, folks higher in neuroticism are more sensitive and easily agitated than their emotionally stable friends.

The Well Being Project says, “High neuroticism is characterized by traits such as being angry, tense, nervous, envious, unstable, discontented, and emotional. In the word cloud, swear words are prevalent. Surrounding words are distinguished by depression, loneliness, worry, and psychosomatic symptom words (e.g., depressed, lonely, scared, headache).”

On the other hand, the Well Being Project observed, “Low neuroticism, also called emotional stability, is characterized by traits such as being calm, relaxed, at ease, not envious, stable, contented, and unemotional. The word cloud reflects positive social relationships (e.g., team, game, success), activities that could build life balance (e.g., blessed, beach, sports), and sport-related words (e.g., lakers, basketball, soccer).”

If you’re naturally high in neuroticism, it’s likely not going anywhere anytime soon. However, you can take a tip from peers who are less high in neuroticism: get a workout in, get yourself a life-changing faith walk, and see if that doesn’t ease some of the neurotic traits.

3. The Perspective of Age Increases Happiness

If I had a dollar for every time my dad used to tell me that “Life is a process of becoming less selfish,” I probably wouldn’t be writing this on a slow Dell. The word clouds from the studies on age were quite surprising to me in that, well, they proved dad right.

The Well Being Project examined several different age groups: 13-18 years old, 19-22 years old, 23-29 years old, and over 30 (I’m not sure why it didn’t break down anyone past 30.).

As expected, the teenagers’ language was mostly filled with lighthearted lingo, slang, relationships (“wanna,” “hug”) and school. Their cares were few.

In the next age range, 19-22 years old, college and “semester” were prominent in their minds and swearing increased (as did their alcohol consumption and, umm, sex lives). Interestingly, despite having few responsibilities, relatively speaking, the overall tone of most kids this age was somewhat negative.

The next two categories were probably the most fascinating. For the 23- to 29-year-olds, it’s clear by the word clouds life changed pretty drastically. “Work,” “beer,” “office,” and “wedding” occur often; foul language decreases dramatically, (or at least, now they’re not swearing online), and there are far more positive phrases used, even as responsibilities of work and beginning a family (in terms of marriage) increased.

The last word cloud, for those above 30, was the most positive one of all, even though it’s clear by the language used that these individuals’ responsibilities have increased tremendously. “Son,” “daughter,” “family and friends” are all words used frequently along with words like “blessed,” “grateful,” and “prayers.” If there’s such thing as a midlife crisis, it wasn’t represented here, although there could be many variables about why.

I’m no psychologist, but from this alone, I’d gather that responsibilities that include work and family increase happiness. Or, when people look outward at others, their vocation, their friends, and other activities, the happier they seem.

This is the opposite of how many young people behave and how human nature compels people to behave. If you want to be happier, do more for others. It’s an old truth, but still true.

4. Men and Women Express Happiness Differently

Who would have that thought at the end of 2018, with a war on men still raging and feminism in its third (or fourth?) wave, men and women would still prove to be different creatures, just by analyzing their language alone? It’s true.

In this study, the Well Being Project found “Males used more swear words and object references,” such as “xbox.” Also, interestingly, “my wife” and “my girlfriend” are strongly evidenced in the male results, while simply “husband” and “boyfriend” appear in the female results.” The study noted “Females used more emotion words (e.g., ‘excited’), first-person singulars, and they mention more psychological and social processes (e.g., ‘love you’ and the heart emoticon: ‘<3’).”

Relational differences are easy to spot here, and highlight the two things couples fight about most: sex and money. While the word for sex that is also a swear word was used in multiple ways (it’s unclear whether the men were using the word to curse or to describe, umm, the night before) women didn’t swear or mention any word for sex among their highest-used words. The word “f-ck” was used with the highest frequency for men, while for women, er, “shopping” was almost as high as verbal demonstrations of affection, such as “Love you.”

I’m going to go out on a limb here and assume that men still want more of that thing. Women, do that thing with your man as much as you talk about shopping. You’ll have less time for Facebook and all will be even happier.

5. Happiness Evidence Versus Predictability

It’s likely many will say that these Facebook users were already happy and thus used language that reflected that. They weren’t happier because they used more positive language. It’s hard to know exactly which came first, although I too would lean toward the former.

However, that doesn’t mean there still aren’t some lessons here, including the fact that happier people probably naturally do use happier language. How often have you felt grumpy, but forced yourself to smile and do something for someone else, then felt a twinge of anxiety decreasing?

Even more importantly, from the language in the word clouds of so-called happy people, we don’t just see their happiness, we often see how they got there: Friends, family, work, love, education, exercise, and sex. These are all God-given things, so it’s no wonder they increase a person’s ability to feel more satiated in life.