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Books reflect the economic tone of their times

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THURSDAY, Jan. 9, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," Dickens wrote in 1859.

And books often reflect the difficulties faced by people during tough economic periods, a new study shows.

Researchers examined 5 million English-language books from the 20th century and found that the frequency of words expressing misery and unhappiness was higher if there were difficult economic conditions in the 10 years before a book was written.

"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," study author Alex Bentley, of the University of Bristol in England, said in a university news release.

While some periods, such as the 1980s, were clearly marked by "literary misery," books from other periods were more upbeat.

"Economic misery coincides with WWI (1918), the aftermath of the Great Depression (1935) and the energy crisis (1975)," study co-author Alberto Acerbi said in the news release. "But in each case, the literary response lags by about a decade, such that authors are averaging experiences over that decade."

Bentley suggested that "perhaps this 'decade effect' reflects the gap between childhood, when strong memories are formed, and early adulthood, when authors may begin writing books."

He added, "consider for example, the dramatic increase of literary misery in the 1980s, which follows the 'stagflation' of the 1970s. Children from this generation who became authors would have begun writing in the 1980s."

The researchers also analyzed books written in German and found the same results.

The study was published Jan. 8 in the journal PLoS One.

More information

The American Psychological Association explains how to manage stress during tough economic times.

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