Johannes Eichstaedt remembers the moment he knew he wanted to switch his focus from particle physics to psychology. A decade ago, gazing at the particle accelerator at Argonne National Laboratory, he realized he felt out of place both professionally and personally.
“I realized I cared more about people than I did about particles,” he says. “I wanted to work on how humans live their lives, and I wanted it to be work that had the potential to be relevant to a lot of people, so I decided to switch into the social sciences. I chose psychology because it’s a connector between fields like cognitive science, sociology, public health, and economics. It does a lot of linkage, which I appreciate.”
Eichstaedt found himself drawn not only to the interdisciplinary potential of psychology, but also to the relatively new subfield of positive psychology, which strives to understand what makes human life most worth living. At the University of Pennsylvania, he joined a cadre of young psychologists and computer scientists anxious to take advantage of increasing government interest in measuring the happiness and mental health of their citizens.
“We thought that if these governments were doing this at a small scale, maybe we could find ways to do it globally and cheaply using social media-based indicators,” he says. “We started the World Well-Being Project in an attempt to use social media and large-scale aggregated data and run it through natural language processing to create indicators of well-being for counties and cities.” Today, Eichstaedt is a computational social scientist and the Ram and Vijay Shriram Faculty Fellow at the Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence (HAI). He continues to collaborate with many of those colleagues as they study a growing volume of social media data to try to understand the mental and physical health of users.