Talk Your Way to a Better Mood

Why you should—like the song from ‘South Pacific’—“keep talkin’ happy talk.”
July 18, 2014

You go to the town parade on Sunday and want to share your weekend plans on Facebook. Which of the following is more likely to be your status update?

A. “I’m loving the marching bands! So blessed to live in this wonderful town!”

B. “Drinking a bottle of beer at the parade. Damn, I hate bagpipes!”

It’s no surprise that different people can have vastly different experiences of the same event; or that people who are negative pick up on the downsides (cold weather, for example), and vice versa. But recent research suggests you can pin down someone’s personality traits—and how positive they are—by the words they use on Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

Psychologists from the World Well-Being Project (WWBP), part of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, examined 700 million words, phrases and topics in status updates from 70,000-plus willing Facebook users who also completed a personality test. Participants’ personality traits were plotted on the five-factor model, or Big Five, which measures levels of extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism/emotional stability and openness to experience/intellect. Using computational linguistics, these traits were then matched with distinguishing words and phrases that can effectively predict personality—and, hopefully, levels of overall well-being.

Past studies have highlighted the connection between language, personality and health outcomes. Facebook and the like, however, offer a new playing field for computational linguistics. “Before social media, we didn’t have the data sizes to fully leverage language associated with people in a data-driven fashion,” says H. Andrew Schwartz, lead research scientist at the WWBP. “There are so many words in our vocabulary that it really takes an enormous database to find statistically meaningful patterns.”

The goal, ultimately, is to track the psychological and physical well-being of humans through their language. “Behavior, psychological states and traits, and health manifest themselves so well in language,” Schwartz says. Do people whose social media utterances reflect their emotional stability live longer? Are they healthier? Happier? That remains to be seen, and it’s what’s next for the WWBP, headed by famed positive psychologist Martin Seligman, Ph.D., from the University of Pennsylvania.

In the meantime, how can the “meaningful patterns” that they found help you to convey a more positive online image—whether for yourself or your business—and possibly boost your outlook?

Count your blessings. Did you pick “A,” the first Facebook status? According to your word choices, you are highly agreeable (agreeableness being a surprisingly scientific term used to describe a suite of personality traits, including cooperative, trusting, modest and altruistic), conscientious (thorough, careful, efficient, organized) and emotionally stable. Blessed is a hallmark word for all three traits. You’re also likely quite extroverted, with most forms of the word love being strongly associated with the trait.

Even if some things about the parade bugged you (crowds, out-of-tune bagpipes), choosing to talk about the positive parts can not only alter people’s perception of you, but also your own perception of your experiences, says Todd Kashdan, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and author of Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. He subscribes to the theory that language dictates consciousness. In other words, the more you mention things you like, the more likely you are to focus on those things and find them in the future.

Recognize your themes. Is the second Facebook status more your style? You are probably more extroverted than introverted, Schwartz says. While you may not have loved the parade, the fact that you mentioned a social, community event is evidence enough, according to his research. Introverts don’t write about parties, sports or, well… parades. While you may be extroverted, though, you may not be particularly agreeable. Words related to alcohol (vodka, bottle) as well as other intoxicant-associated terms (weed, smoke) are most regularly used by people scoring low on agreeableness. Think of yourself as affable? Then you may want to lay off the sauce talk.

More than that, though, Kashdan advises being aware of what we regularly mention: “The real patterns are seen over time. The themes you talk and write about most often become your life narrative. If someone were to write a biography of you based on what you talk and write about, would you like it? Would it be accurate? If not, change the way you communicate.”

Avoid absolutes. Those in the “B” camp might also score low on emotional stability. Emotionally unstable folk tend to swear and complain more, using phrases such as “I hate,” “so annoying,” “tired of, “fed up” and “for once.” Absolute statements such as “I hate bagpipes” or “I am terrible at math” are language traps, Kashdan says. The more you connect the words terrible and math in your conversation, the more wired together the ideas become in your brain. While you may have trouble understanding complex algorithms, you can probably manage your personal budget. But your verbal absolutism may convince you otherwise over time, and your language can have real-life consequences: You begin to believe your repeated “bad-at-math” slogan and avoid balancing your checkbook, leading to late payments or overdrafts.

Be inspired. Other words that positive, open, emotionally stable people use: universe, dream, music, writing and books. So if you heard a great band recently, why not share it? Talking about new things (if, say, you always post about your kids or your business) opens up your world and expands your opportunities, Kashdan says. Research has shown that even fake smiling can elevate your mood and lead to genuine smiles. This fake-it-until-you-make-it phenomenon works with the language we use, too, Kashdan says. So the next time you’re tempted to write “so bored” on social media, why not type “Anyone read a good book lately?”

Want to boost your mood? Find out 23 ways to program a positive state of mind.

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