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Travels Looking at Mt. Fuji, by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806)

It doesn’t take advanced technology to prove that we live relatively circumscribed lives. Like tiny planets, we process along a certain orbit, from home, the office, the grocery store, the kids’ school, and back home again, except for the occasional vacation. But thanks to the numerous Twitter users who have enabled geotagging on their tweets (sharing their location at the time), researchers can now say exactly how big travel radii tend to be, how their size varies with geographic region, and, perhaps most interestingly, how people feel when they are near or far from home.

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In a study posted to the arXiv, an online repository of not-yet-peer-reviewed papers, a team from University of Vermont presents an analysis of more than 180,000 people’s usual locations, as recorded by 37 million of their tweets from 2011. Using a database of words scored for what they reveal about moods and an army of users from the Amazon Mechanical Turk service scoring each tweet, they explored how people’s apparent emotions changed with distance.

People tweeted most frequently from two different locations, which appear to be their home and their work, with tweets splaying out from home like the rays of a cartoon sun, presumably reflecting people’s travels around their neighborhoods. Individuals who lived in densely populated areas, like cities, tended to roam farther from home on a regular basis than those in less dense areas, like suburbs. Whether they were city or country mice, people used positively charged words—like ‘lol,’ ‘love,’ ‘like,’ ‘haha,’ ‘my,’ and ‘good’—more frequently near their home base than when they were a short commute away. But perhaps most surprisingly, the happiest locations for both groups were at the extreme edges of their travel radii, far from their centers of gravity. The researchers write, “Tweets authored far from an individual’s expected location are more likely to contain the positive words ‘beach’, ‘new’, ‘great’, ‘park’, ‘restaurant’, ‘dinner’, ‘resort’, ‘coffee’, ‘lunch’, ‘cafe’, and ‘food’, and less likely to contain the negative words ‘no’, ‘don’t’, ‘not’, ‘hate’, ‘can’t’, ‘damn’, and ‘never’ than tweets posted close to home.”

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Why do people tweet more happily when far from home? Is it just that vacations are more likely to take us to distant places than our daily lives, and we’re simply happier when we’re far from work and school? 

Or might it be that we gain greater perspective when far from home? Psychologists have found that believing that a puzzle was developed by people far away makes subjects more creative in solving it, perhaps because the idea of distance liberates them from their everyday assumptions. Management researchers found that students who’ve lived in a foreign country also tend to be significantly better at solving a challenge that draws on creativity. Whether this study’s findings connect with these broader ideas of travel, distance, and mental nimbleness isn’t clear. But it’s fun to wonder whether just by going out to the edge of our daily perambulations, we can get someplace farther away in our minds, as well.

Veronique Greenwood is a former staff writer at DISCOVER Magazine. Her work has appeared in Scientific AmericanPopular Science, and the sites of TimeThe Atlantic, and The New Yorker. Follow her on Twitter here.

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