TIME psychology

The Literary Misery Index: What the Economy Has to Do With What You’re Reading

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Authors tend to write about what they see and experience, including economic hardship, according to a new study.

The analysis, published in the journal PLOS One, found that when words commonly associated with misery show up in books, it meant that 10 years before, the economic situation was pretty grim.

To reach this discovery, researchers from Bristol and London sifted through a database of more than five million digital versions of books from Google. They created a literary misery index calculated by adding the amount of sadness-related words and subtracting the number of happiness-related words. They then compared this literary misery index to a well known measurement called the economic misery index, which is the sum of inflation and unemployment rates. The literary misery level in a given year was associated with the average of the previous 10 years’ economic misery index.

“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. In other words, global economics is part of the shared emotional experience of the 20th century,” said study author Alex Bentley, a professor at the University of Bristol in a statement.

They reported that market economic misery corresponds with WW1, the aftermath of the Great Depression, and the energy crisis of 1975. The literary misery comes about a decade later, which the researchers speculate could be due to the time gap between when a writer was young and live through these experiences and formed these memories, to when they actually began writing published work.

The researchers even repeated the study with books written in German, and found the same connection.

Although the findings may seem obvious, it documents collective memories that people develop and rely upon for inspiration. Which means that in less than a decade, we can expect another series of misery-heavy tomes reflecting the downturn of 2008-11.

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