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Literature Reflects Our Lives, With A 10-Year Delay

A new study finds that literature echoes the economic mood years before they're published.

Literature Reflects Our Lives, With A 10-Year Delay

[Image: Flickr user Karrie Nodalo]

Capital-L "Literature" is infamous for bumming readers out with heart-wrenchingly life-like characters and sad themes—but what if some of that moroseness can be tracked back to environment?

Researchers have unveiled a correlation between economic mood and aggregate literary mood, but oddly, there's an incubation period. Literary misery can be correlated with economic misery of roughly 10 years prior, say the researchers at the University of Bristol, who sifted through five million digitized books to get their results. The researchers used Google Ngram Viewer with Google Books and the WordNet Affect (WNA) literary analysis tool to create a "literary misery index" roughly equivalent to aggregate sad words minus aggregate happy words. In the 20th century, periods of literary misery surfaced a decade after economic misery in WWI, the Great Depression, and the mid-'70s energy crisis.

While the results are specifically tagged to English-language literature and the U.S. economic misery index (inflation plus unemployment), researchers cross-referenced their findings with the equivalent German literary and economic metrics, finding an identical correlation and decade lag.

The lag is harder to pin down. University of Bristol professor Alex Bentley, the paper’s author, thinks the lag impacts youth during their teens and then manifests in their writing during their early productive years a decade later. He used the stagflation of the 1970s as an example of influence on the increased misery in '80s writing, when children who grew up in the previous decade’s economic adversity came of age.

The University of Bristol researchers compared their findings with "emotion extraction" tools that use words as data points to statistically track feelings—which researchers have applied to Twitter for years in a model coined Hedonometrics.