The decline of happiness

A major grammar point this week was comparative and superlative adjectives, about which I am preparing a long post, but I’ll start with a much shorter one. One student was prone to writing and saying things like more happy instead of happier. To illustrate the difference in usage, I showed the Google Ngrams graph, which shows that more happy is used (I suspect that some of those are in phrases like more [happy children] instead of [more happy] children), but that happier is clearly the preferred form.

I noticed the general decline in the use of happier and more happy, which also shows up in the graph for happy and happiness. Are we collectively less happy than we were in 1800, or are we talking about it less? Not necessarily. The first caution is Google Ngrams shows the usage of words as a percentage of the total word count. As more and more words enter the language, any given word’s share of the total will decline. The second caution is that the sources which make up the Google Books corpus change over time. The sources for more recent years contain mass media and scientific papers, which are less likely to talk about happiness.

The bright spot is that even though the usage of happy, happier, more happy and happiness declined from 1800 to 1980, there has been a slight pickup since 1980, if only as a result of pop psychology and self-help books.

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