When The Economy Stinks, Our Books Get More Depressing

American futurism gets pretty dark during bad economic times. Many people start to see technology as the enemy, like they did in the 1930s and 1970s. And people generally feel less optimistic for the future.

But new research shows that it's not just futurism that becomes more gloomy during economic recessions. When the economy stinks, all authors start to adopt a more depressing vocabulary.

A recent study out of London took different "mood words" that were then broken up into six categories: anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise. From there the researchers made what they call a "literary misery index" to gauge the relative number of positive moods against the negative moods in 20th century books.

Not surprisingly, books released after periods of economic distress use language that reflect a general malaise. The Great Depression of the 1930s and the recession of 1970s saw an explosion of downer books on their heels — much like the various forms of popular futurism from these eras.

From the new study:

Visually, the literary misery index seems to respond to major phases of the 20th century: literary misery increased after the economic Depression, then declined after the post-War years, then rose again after the recession of the 1970s, and declined again following on from the economics recovery of the late 1980s.

When The Economy Stinks, Our Books Get More Depressing

"When we looked at millions of books published in English every year and looked for a specific category of words denoting unhappiness, we found that those words in aggregate averaged the authors' economic experiences over the past decade," Professor Alex Bentley of the University of Bristol, a lead author of the new study said in a statement.

"In other words, global economics is part of the shared emotional experience of the 20th century," Bentley explained.

Which is all really too bad. Because if movies like the Preston Sturges classic Sullivan's Travels have taught us anything, it's that when people are down and out, one of the last things they need is to be reminded of how awful things are.

[Smithsonian]


Images: Undated photo of a bookshelf via the Associated Press and Misery Score via Plos One