At the end of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, we are reminded, in a singalong, to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” It’s a pitch black comic moment, because, as you know if you’ve seen the film, the titular Messiah Brian and others singing have all been crucified and are waiting to die.
But researchers have long theorized that it’s not so far off, and there is a natural tendency in human languages to use happy words even if things aren’t going so well. Called the “Pollyanna Hypothesis,” after the sickeningly optimistic character immortalized by Hayley Mills in a Disney movie, the idea has been floating since 1969 as “Put even more simply humans tend to look on (and talk about) the bright side of life.”
But it was a difficult idea to test in 1969. Now, we have the internet, and a team at University of Vermont and The MITRE Corporation were able to test billions of words in multiple languages to confirm the idea. We really are all Pollyannas at some level.
“We looked at ten languages,” says UVM mathematician Peter Dodds who co-led the study, “and in every source we looked at, people use more positive words than negative ones.”
The scientists took books, Twitter feeds, websites, newspapers, music lyrics and more from around the world. The data set included roughly a hundred billion words in tweets alone.
They separated from the data the 10,000 most commonly used words in English, Spanish, French, German, Brazilian Portuguese, Korean, Chinese (simplified), Russian, Indonesian and Arabic. They then paid native speakers to rate each word on a happiness scale, gathering about five million individual impressions ranking words like “laughter” and “terrorist.”
Then a lot of complex math happened. But the simple conclusion was that humans “use more happy words than sad words.”
The researchers theorize that it’s the social nature of humans that skews our languages this way. Dodds said that “positive social interaction” seems to be built into the fundamental structure of language.
[Source: The University of Vermont]