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North Bay ranks high on Twitter happiness index


So, how are you feeling?

Happy? Contented, you say?

You're not alone, at least in Sonoma and Napa counties.

Statisticians at the University of Vermont recently took a look at a few thousand key words typed by Twitter users, sorting them by positive and negative association and looking at their concentration in 373 metropolitan areas nationwide.

The happiest people in the country, it turns out, are in the North Bay: the Santa Rosa area, which includes almost all of Sonoma County, ranked No. 6, while neighbor Napa ranked No. 1.

"People used the word 'beautiful' more often in Napa and they swore less," than in less happy cities, said lead author Lewis Mitchell, a post-doctoral research fellow at the university's Computational Story Lab.

The key happy words that characterized Sonoma County should come as no surprise: park, river, beach, lunch, coffee, wine.

"We're blessed," said Larry Laba, owner of Russian River Adventures when told of the survey findings. "We have awesome weather, great food, great wine, great outdoor recreation."

Geraldine Flatt, vice president of retail operations and human resources at the Gloria Ferrer winery, was also not surprised by the finding.

"We are the best place on earth," she said. "We're surrounded by green and the vineyards, we can touch the soil and smell the fresh air."

This is the latest in a series of studies that have attempted to assess the happiness of Americans and have found Sonoma County placing high up.

The 2010 Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index found Sonoma County number five nationally, based on interviews with residents and a variety of quality-of-life measures, though that had dropped to 39th place by 2012.

Mitchell's study did not attempt to distinguish between residents and tourists; it merely looked at tweets that could be pinned down to a specific location. Perhaps not surprisingly, vacation destinations such as Sonoma and Napa fared well. Vacation mecca Hawaii was the happiest state overall.

A vacationing Twitter user "will be happier because they're on holiday and they are in a happier frame of mind," he said.

The least happy place in the U.S. turned out to be Beaumont, Tex., followed by Albany, Ga. The least happy state was Louisiana, but that appeared to be because of "an abundance of profanity relative to the other states, "the authors note. Swear words were rated as negative words.

The positive or negative value of words was determined by participants in Amazon's "Mechanical Turk" service, in which users are paid to take surveys on various topics. Mitchell said that had the effect of creating a huge focus group judging the emotional weight of the top 10,000 or so words used on Twitter during 2011.

Food and recreation-related words had a positive weight and they showed up strongly in tweets from Napa and Santa Rosa, where food, drink, and fun are available in abundance.

"We have access to anything we want," said Kevin Sprenger, owner of Sprenger's Tap Room in Santa Rosa. He said he frequently sees his customers documenting their happiness online while eating and drinking beer at his restaurant.

Santa Rosa Twitter users used plenty of negative words too, including damn, no, hate, and some unprintable expletives, but those were heavily outweighed by positive words such as great, like, fun, and beach.

Linda Burke, owner of Burke's Canoe Trips in Forestville, has seen first-hand the happiness power of the river and beaches. Her customers paddle 10 miles down the Russian River, ending up at a private beach in Guernville, where shuttle busses pick them up to return to their cars.

"When they get off the shuttle bus, they're usually singing .... they're new people when they get off that shuttle bus," she said.

The happiness study is more than just an idle exercise, the authors say. Instead, it was a demonstration project showing how the Internet and social media, coupled with increasing computing power, are transforming the way sociologists and statisticians look at society. Such a project would have been nearly impossible even five or 10 years ago.

"It is trying to quantify happiness based on observing people in their natural habitat," he said.

And there could be useful information from such a study. By comparing the Twitter words to demographic data, for example, some surprising patterns emerged. Places where obesity is widespread, for example, saw a higher occurrence of words such as McDonalds, hungry, heartburn and ham.

Areas with a lower rate of obesity saw a more frequent use of words such as sushi, apple, wine, tofu and brewery.

"I think this has great potential to do something like measuring obesity levels and developing real, measurable outcomes," Mitchell said.

The study is also a part of an experiment in monitoring the national mood in real time. The study's authors used the methods in the report to create a website that monitors the relative happiness of Twitter at any given moment. The result is a day-to-day chart going back to late 2008, showing the ups and downs of our collective feeling of well-being.

It has been trending down slightly lately, with the national "Happiness Index" dropping below 6.0 in recent days after a peak in May and June of slightly over 6.0. The lowest spots were Dec. 14, 2012, the day of the Newtown shootings, when a gunman in Connecticut massacred students and teachers in an elementary school, and April 15, when bombs ripped through the crowd at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

The index dropped to 5.89 and 5.88 on those days respectively.

The peak days are much more predictable, showing up on major holidays. The consistent winner is Christmas day, when the index hits 6.2 or more. The highest spot on the chart came on Dec. 25, 2008, when the index hit a delirious 6.37.

The complete happiness study is available at arxiv.org/pdf/1302.3299.pdf.

The daily mood graph is available at www.hedonometer.org.

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.)