The power of positivity in human language


Take a moment to think back to the past — to the events of last week, last year, or even back to your childhood. Are you more likely to describe these memories in positive or negative terms? For most people, the tendency is to fondly remember past events and to discuss things using positive language. Interestingly, this bias has been found in people across the world, bridging both culture and language. Psychologists have referred to this phenomenon as the “Pollyanna principle,” the inclination to describe things in a positive light, even when they are negative.

A recent study took an in-depth look into this bias within language, taking advantage of some of the internet resources we use everyday – Twitter, Google Books, and online newspapers. The researchers started by selecting 10 languages from around the world. Next, they collected datasets of approximately 10,000 words for each language, using computer programs to pull common words from the online resources. Finally, native speakers for each language were paid to rate the words on a scale from 1 to 9 based on how positive or negative each word made them feel.

Try it yourself on this random list of common English words, thinking about how positive or negative each word is on a 9-point scale. You can scroll down to find the results from the study.news_4.1.15_power_of_positivity_table1-1.jpg


The results of this analysis were shocking; every language tested showed a positive bias in their word scores, regardless of what source was used to collect the words. This means that overall, language tends to include more frequently used positive words than negative words! Spanish was found to be the most positive of the languages tested, but even the lowest ranked languages still had more positive than negative words.

While it’s impossible to determine the reasons for the bias using this study alone, it does shed some light on how communication effects happiness. Scientists still do not know if language is responsible for the Pollyanna principle, or if our natural positivity might have influenced language. In the meantime, if you’re looking for a little extra happiness in your life it might be worth taking a Spanish language class!

The original article is available for open access by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences at

For more fun with language happiness, including analysis of books, movies, and twitter check out the Hedonometer at:



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