Words to Live By — or Die From

What we say and how we say it can make us happier and healthier — or not.

Posted Feb 20, 2016

The current issue of Scientific American Mind contains an article by Johannes Eichstaedt about how scientists are using social media to assess mental and physical health from afar. This trend began in 2010, when Eichstaedt, along with Google co-founder Larry Page and positive psychologist Martin Seligman, used search-engine queries to monitor the spread of influenza in the US. Encouraged by the success of Google Flu Trends, the group wondered whether they could use similar strategies to chart psychological health in America.

The answer turns out to be yes. Last year, Eichstaedt and his colleagues published the results of their evaluation of more than 100 million tweets from about 1,300 counties across the US. The researchers used the collective language of the tweets from each county to create a psychological profile of the people living there. They also collected data from each county about mortality from heart disease.

Eichstaedt reports, “We discovered that the preponderance of negative tweets — particularly those expressing anger or hostility, and those using curse words — in a given location reliably predicted rates of death from heart disease there.” Higher rates of death correlated with the use of words associated with negative topics — words such as hate, despise, tired, jealous, mad, exhausted, and grrr. Lower rates of death correlated with the use of more optimistic words — words such as opportunity, hope, fantastic, weekend, great, possibilities, strength, faith, and overcome.

The overall correlation between negative tweets and high death rates was especially strong with atherosclerosis, a leading cause of death that also has been closely linked to psychological factors. It’s also interesting to note, Eichstaedt says, that the people tweeting were not the people dying of heart disease: most tweeters were too young to have heart problems. Even so, researchers conjecture, the tweets may indicate the level of social cohesion, indicating that community members are willing to cooperate and help one another. Other studies have shown that more cohesive communities have healthier and happier members.

It’s worth pointing out, of course, that language and life are mutually self-reinforcing. We choose to use certain words because they effectively describe how we feel and what we think about ourselves and our world. As the words leave our mouth, they become a part of the world around us — the world that makes us feel however we happen to feel. Our words, in turn, also affect how other people feel and how they view the world, and their words affect us as well.

Because of this interplay, it’s actually quite hard for us to change our patterns of speech and action. But it can be done, and the benefits will eventually accrue not only to us, but to everyone around us. The truth is that life will always give you sufficient evidence to convict it of whatever you charge it with. If you keep focused on what’s wrong with the world, you’ll find plenty of things not to like. On the other hand, if you focus on what’s right with the world, you’ll find plenty of things to be happy about and grateful for.

Robert A. Emmons, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Journal of Positive Psychology, is a leading scientific expert on the physical and psychological benefits of gratitude. He puts it this way:  “Being grateful is a choice, a prevailing attitude that endures and is relatively immune to the gains and losses that flow in and out of our lives. When disaster strikes, gratitude provides a perspective from which we can view life in its entirety and not be overwhelmed by temporary circumstances. Yes, this perspective is hard to achieve — but my research says it is worth the effort.”

And besides, our decision not to speak and act in positive ways can have negative consequences — even if we never know about them. A number of years ago, Tad Friend wrote an article for the New Yorker titled “Jumpers,” about people who commit suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The article describes an interview with Jerome Motto, a now-retired psychiatrist who had been part of two failed efforts to have suicide barriers constructed on the bridge. Motto had two patients who committed suicide from the bridge, and it was the second death that most affected him. Motto said, “I went to this guy’s apartment afterward with the assistant medical examiner. The guy was in his thirties, lived alone, pretty bare apartment. He’d written a note and left it on his bureau. It said, ‘I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.’”

Whenever you look at another person, or open your mouth, or write a tweet, ask yourself this question: am I making the world a better place — more supportive, more joyous, more hopeful — for me and for everyone else?