What makes us happy? AI scanned 700,000 journal entries to find out

happy

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Darren Thackeray, Writer, Formative Content


  • Study analyzed 700,000 anonymous journals written by 67,000 individuals.
  • Correlation between positive moods and sleep, healthy eating and exercise.
  • Nearly one in five of children and adolescents have a mental disorder.
  • AI could be used to identify mental health disorders on social media.

Artificial intelligence can tell us more about the mental health benefits of looking after ourselves.

Researchers from Canada’s University of Waterloo gathered more than 700,000 anonymous online journal entries written by over 67,000 users of a mobile mood tracking app. They then developed an AI computer model that could identify keywords within the text.

What makes us feel happy?

The report, published in January, demonstrated a strong correlation between positive moods and sleep quality, healthy eating and exercising. In short, the more we look after ourselves, the happier we seem to be.

Heat map of mood correlations and groups of highly correlated moods
This heat map shows associations between different moods.
Image: Computing 2020

The research also highlighted correlations between moods themselves. For example, those who reported feeling tired were more likely to experience sadness, anger and frustration. While those who reported feeling productive were more likely to experience feelings of happiness and ecstasy.

Even “productive” activities such as getting a haircut were linked to feeling calmer and happier.

Link between mental and physical health

We’ve known for some time that mental and physical health are closely linked, but there is still plenty of work to be done to help us understand the correlation.

Research like this highlights the link between looking after ourselves – for example, by eating healthily, sleeping better and exercising – and our psychological well-being.

Lukasz Golab, who supervised the study, praised the technology at the heart of the research, saying it could eventually be used as a type of “screening tool” to flag possible mental health issues among social media users.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly one in five of the world’s children and adolescents have a mental disorder. Depression is the most prevalent, affecting a total of 254 million people around the world.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

One in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, costing the global economy an estimated $6 trillion by 2030.

Mental ill-health is the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people aged 10–24 years, contributing up to 45% of the overall burden of disease in this age-group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to youth mental health care within the lifespan and across all the stages of illness (particularly during the early stages).

In response, the Forum has launched a global dialogue series to discuss the ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and disease management on mental health.

One of the current key priorities is to support global efforts toward mental health outcomes – promoting key recommendations toward achieving the global targets on mental health, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action-Portal and the Countdown Global Mental Health

Read more about the work of our Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, and contact us to get involved.

Happiness and artificial intelligence

This isn’t AI’s first journey to try and uncover the secret to happiness. A study in 2019 used an AI model to analyze 8 million books and 65 million newspaper articles, creating an “index of national happiness” that went back to 1820.

Among the key findings were that longer lives mean happier lives, increased national income leads to increased national happiness and that war can, unsurprisingly, dramatically lower the national mood.

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