Inside the Lab That’s Quantifying Happiness

Rowan Jacobsen at Outside: “In Mississippi, people tweet about cake and cookies an awful lot; in Colorado, it’s noodles. In Mississippi, the most-tweeted activity is eating; in Colorado, it’s running, skiing, hiking, snowboarding, and biking, in that order. In other words, the two states fall on opposite ends of the behavior spectrum. If you were to assign a caloric value to every food mentioned in every tweet by the citizens of the United States and a calories-burned value to every activity, and then totaled them up, you would find that Colorado tweets the best caloric ratio in the country and Mississippi the worst.

Sure, you’d be forgiven for doubting people’s honesty on Twitter. On those rare occasions when I destroy an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s, I most assuredly do not tweet about it. Likewise, I don’t reach for my phone every time I strap on a pair of skis.

And yet there’s this: Mississippi has the worst rate of diabetes and heart disease in the country and Colorado has the best. Mississippi has the second-highest percentage of obesity; Colorado has the lowest. Mississippi has the worst life expectancy in the country; Colorado is near the top. Perhaps we are being more honest on social media than we think. And perhaps social media has more to tell us about the state of the country than we realize.

That’s the proposition of Peter Dodds and Chris Danforth, who co-direct the University of Vermont’s Computational Story Lab, a warren of whiteboards and grad students in a handsome brick building near the shores of Lake Champlain. Dodds and Danforth are applied mathematicians, but they would make a pretty good comedy duo. When I stopped by the lab recently, both were in running clothes and cracking jokes. They have an abundance of curls between them and the wiry energy of chronic thinkers. They came to UVM in 2006 to start the Vermont Complex Systems Center, which crunches big numbers from big systems and looks for patterns. Out of that, they hatched the Computational Story Lab, which sifts through some of that public data to discern the stories we’re telling ourselves. “It took us a while to come up with the name,” Dodds told me as we shotgunned espresso and gazed into his MacBook. “We were going to be the Department of Recreational Truth.”

This year, they teamed up with their PhD student Andy Reagan to launch the Lexicocalorimeter, an online tool that uses tweets to compute the calories in and calories out for every state. It’s no mere party trick; the Story Labbers believe the Lexicocalorimeter has important advantages over slower, more traditional methods of gathering health data….(More)”.