Happiness, positivity and sharing

Happiness, positivity and sharing

I just came across this interesting article about how and why people share information and emails; it is, I think, directly relevant to positive psychology and to happiness as sharing and connecting are key themes I’ve obviously discussed before. Read more about spreading happiness on the internet below (and feel free to share it with others!)…

February 9, 2010

Will You Be E-Mailing This Column? It_ã_s Awesome By JOHN TIERNEY

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania have intensively studied the New York Times list of most-e-mailed articles, checking it every 15 minutes for more than six months, analyzing the content of thousands of articles and controlling for factors like the placement in the paper or on the Web home page.

The results are surprising _ã” well, to me, anyway. I would have hypothesized that there are two basic strategies for making the most-e-mailed list. One, which I_ã_ve happily employed, is to write anything about sex. The other, which I_ã_m still working on, is to write an article headlined: _ã–How Your Pet_ã_s Diet Threatens Your Marriage, and Why It_ã_s Bush_ã_s Fault._ã

But it turns out that readers have more exalted tastes, according to the Penn researchers, Jonah Berger and Katherine A. Milkman. People preferred e-mailing articles with positive rather than negative themes, and they liked to send long articles on intellectually challenging topics.

Perhaps most of all, readers wanted to share articles that inspired awe, an emotion that the researchers investigated after noticing how many science articles made the list. In general, they found, 20 percent of articles that appeared on the Times home page made the list, but the rate rose to 30 percent for science articles, including ones with headlines like _ã–The Promise and Power of RNA._㝠(I swear, the science staff did nothing to instigate this study, but we definitely don_ã_t mind publicizing the results.)

_ã–Science kept doing better than we expected,_㝠said Dr. Berger, a social psychologist and a professor of marketing at Penn_ã_s Wharton School. _ã–We anticipated that people would share articles with practical information about health or gadgets, and they did, but they also sent articles about paleontology and cosmology. You_ã_d see articles shooting up the list that were about the optics of deer vision._ã

To make sense of these trends in _ã–virality,_㝠the Penn researchers tracked more than 7,500 articles published from August 2008 to February 2009. They assessed each article_ã_s popularity after controlling for factors like the time of day it was published online, the section in which it appeared and how much promotion it received on the Web home page.

A random sample of 3,000 of these articles was rated by independent readers for qualities like providing practical value or being surprising. The researchers also used computer algorithms to track the ratio of emotional words in an article and to assess the relative positivity or negativity.

The computer textual analysis could identify _ã–affect-laden_㝠articles like _ã–Redefining Depression as Mere Sadness_㝠or _ã–When All Else Fails, Blaming the Patient Often Comes Next._㝠It distinguished positive articles like _ã–Wide-Eyed New Arrivals Falling in Love With the City_㝠from downers like

_ã–Germany: Baby Polar Bear_ã_s Feeder Dies._ã

More emotional stories were more likely to be e-mailed, the researchers found, and positive articles were shared more than negative ones. Longer articles generally did better than shorter articles, although Dr. Berger said that might just be because the longer articles were about more engaging topics. (The best way to test that, he said, would be for The Times to run shorter and longer versions of the same article that would be seen by different readers.)

Building on prior research, the Penn researchers defined the quality as an _ã–emotion of self-transcendence, a feeling of admiration and elevation in the face of something greater than the self._ã

They used two criteria for an awe-inspiring story: Its scale is large, and it requires _ã–mental accommodation_㝠by forcing the reader to view the world in a different way.

_ã–It involves the opening and broadening of the mind,_㝠write Dr. Berger and Dr. Milkman, who is a behavioral economist at Wharton.

_ã–Seeing the Grand Canyon, standing in front of a beautiful piece of art, hearing a grand theory or listening to a beautiful symphony may all inspire awe. So may the revelation of something profound and important in something you may have once seen as ordinary or routine, or seeing a causal connection between important things and seemingly remote causes._ã

But in general, people who share this kind of article seem to have loftier motives than trying to impress their friends. They_ã_re seeking emotional communion, Dr. Berger said.

_ã–Emotion in general leads to transmission, and awe is quite a strong emotion,_㝠he said. _ã–If I_ã_ve just read this story that changes the way I understand the world and myself, I want to talk to others about what it means. I want to proselytize and share the feeling of awe. If you read the article and feel the same emotion, it will bring us closer together._㝠(Go to nytimes.com/tierneylab to discuss your motives for e-mailing articles.)

The Penn researchers found evidence of readers_ã_ sharing other emotions, too, like anxiety _ã” which, based on the old _ã–fear sells_㝠theory of journalism, might be expected to be the most influential emotion on readers. But of all the variables studied, Dr. Berger said, awe had the strongest relationship with an article making the most-e-mailed list, and that finding strikes me as a high compliment to the Times audience.