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What we Google when we Google ‘love’

Jeremy Adam Smith, Editor, Greater Good Magazine | June 20, 2012

Internet searches are a fascinating window into human nature and social trends. By analyzing Google searches, researchers have uncovered racial bias in elections and our most intimate sexual desires, as well as many, many consumer trends.

But recently, I discovered another kind of search trend: rising interest in “pro-social” emotions and behaviors like love, empathy, and gratitude. Meanwhile, worldwide searches for negative emotions and behaviors, like hate or revenge, have stayed flat, and even, in some cases, declined. You can check my numbers and find out more about how they’re calculated by using a very handy tool called Google Trends, which shows the search volume (the top two thirds of the graphs embedded in this article) and also how frequently the topics pop up in Google News stories (which you can see in the lower thirds).

The top line represents the "happiness" search volume index, 2004-2012. The bottom line shows how frequently "happiness" has turned up in Google News stories during the same period.

Let’s start with the king of positive emotions, “happiness,” and its queen, “love.” Since Google’s inception, searches for happiness have roughly tripled (at left) while searches for its opposites, like sadness or melancholy, have remained fairly steady.

At the same time, more people are googling for “love” than ever before, while searches for “hate” stay the same. (I wish I could say “love” is outpacing “porn,” but no  — porn searches have increased threefold since 2004, against love’s much more modest and gradual rise.)

No one seems to know exactly what’s going on here. When I asked Google’s “Chief Happiness Officer,” Chade-Meng Tan, about this trend, he merely replied, “I have no insights or comments on this data point.” If the man responsible for happiness at Google doesn’t have them, I’m not sure who could; I also talked to positive psychologists who simply shrugged their shoulders. And I wasn’t able to find any empirical studies that might explain the trend (though if any readers can point me to one, that would be welcomed).

But I think we have solid grounds for speculation: The market demand for human goodness is growing. More and more people are actively trying to figure out how to be happier and more connected to other human beings. It’s true that few people outside of university creative writing programs are striving to be sad. But these numbers tell me that, at the very least, people want what we at the  UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center are offering: tools for living a life that is more compassionate, grateful, and resilient.

The "gratitude" search volume index, 2004-2012.

Take “gratitude,” for example. We recently launched our Expanding the Science and Practice of Gratitude project with $5.9 million in funding from the John Templeton Foundation.

According to Google, we’re on the right track: More and more people on the Internet are searching for gratitude, as you can see to your left. (Google Trends reveals other fun facts, some of which are impossibly cryptic: The people of the Philippines are the most curious about gratitude, but the city of Pleasanton, CA is searching harder and more often for it than any other city in the world.)

What about the opposite of gratitude, “entitlement“? This has been the subject of much handwringing by people who worry that our children are feeling more entitled than ever. But they can take heart: The same number of people are searching for it in 2012 as searched for it in 2004.

The same search trend applies to “forgiveness,” “empathy,” and “mindfulness“—the average search volume for each rises every single year, while searches for their opposites—e.g., revenge—are static. (There are curious exceptions to this positive behavior search trend; “altruism” and “compassion” have both stayed flat, for example.)

Publications in peer-reviewed scientific journals about prosocial emotions and well being, 2001-2011.

It’s nice to know that people are searching for forgiveness and empathy on the World Wide Web. But that generalized curiosity is reflected in another, more rarified trend, this one in the rising number of scientific papers on positive and prosocial emotions and behaviors—see graph at left.

As we noted in the very first issue of our print magazine, for decades most scientific activity was dedicated to discovering what was “dysfunctional about human behavior and relationships.” Only in recent years have researchers turned their attention to why we love, how we care, and when we cooperate.

In the last line of his short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” Raymond Carver refers to the “human noise” of hearts beating in a room together. The Internet has also been referred to as a form of “noise,” and yet, just as in Carver’s classic story, the noise isn’t all bad. There’s some good to be found there as well.