Conservatives Are Happier Than Liberals. Discuss.

Arthur Brooks, the Louis A. Bantle Professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Public Affairs and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, made his first appearance on this blog when he found that religious conservatives are more philanthropic than secular liberals. He has appeared a few more times since then. He has just published a new book, Gross National Happiness, and has agreed to blog here periodically on the subject. We are very pleased to have him.

Readers of this blog have been seeing quite a bit lately on the subject of happiness, which has become a fairly popular research topic for economists of late. Justin Wolfers has been publishing an elegant series of posts about whether money buys happiness.

But what about politics? Who’s happier, on average — conservatives or liberals? This is a major theme in my new book, and I’m going to post on this question here for a few weeks.

Several years ago I would have told you that liberals have the happiness edge. Regardless of our personal political views, when most academics like me think of an “average conservative,” I have found we tend to conjure up an image of something like the American Gothic: grim, puritanical, and humorless.

Until relatively recently it seemed that the evidence more or less backed up this impression. For example, in one study in the Journal of Research in Personality, Berkeley researchers traced the political ideology and world view of people in their early twenties back to the personalities they had exhibited as toddlers — recorded by their preschool two decades earlier.

The “liberal” young men had these principal traits as babies: resourcefulness in initiating activities, independence and autonomy, and pride in accomplishments. Liberal young women had similarly happy characteristics. In contrast, as babies the conservatives had been easily offended, immobilized under stress, brooding and worried, and suspicious of others. Conservative young women had cried the most easily.

There are a few reasons one might take issue with the study’s conclusions:

All of the study participants, for instance, lived in the San Francisco Bay Area (which by itself would make a conservative of any age emotionally rigid and prone to weeping). But this study reinforced the stereotype that conservatives are naturally less happy than liberals.

What the actual data on self-assessed happiness show, however, is that conservatives have a substantial happiness edge, at least by the time they grow up.

For three decades, the General Social Survey has asked a nationwide sample of adults, “Taken all together, how happy would you say you are these days? Would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” Here is a representative sample of the results:

In 2004, 44 percent of respondents who said they were “conservative” or “very conservative” said they were “very happy,” versus just 25 percent of people who called themselves “liberal” or “very liberal.” (Note that this comparison uses unweighted data — when the data are weighted, the gap is 46 percent to 28 percent.)

Adults on the political right are only half as likely as those on the left to say, “At times, I think I am no good at all.” They are also less likely to say they are dissatisfied with themselves, that they are inclined to feel like a failure, or to be pessimistic about their futures.

It doesn’t matter who holds political power. The happiness gap between conservatives and liberals has persisted for at least 30 years. Indeed, the difference was greater some years under Bill Clinton than it was under George W. Bush. Democrats may very well win the presidency in 2008, and no doubt many liberals will enjoy seeing conservatives grieving out about that — but the data say that conservatives will still be happier people than liberals.

Very Happy ChartSource: General Social Survey, 1974 to 2004.

Lots of other data sources tell the same story as the G.S.S. Furthermore, there are many related findings, such as the fact that gun owners are happier than non-gun-owners, on average.

Now, before any conservatives get out their big foam fingers and liberals flame me to within an inch of my life, let me stress what these data are not saying.

The data don’t say that all conservatives are happy, that all liberals are unhappy, or that all conservatives are happier than all liberals. Such claims would be absurd and wrong.

The happiness differences here do not indicate that conservatives are better than liberals, righter than liberals, or even that they deserve to be happier. In fact, a major criticism of conservatives by liberals is that they have no right to be so happy-that they really should feel worse because they are misguided, or even malevolent. I’m not claiming here that the right wing merits their relative happiness. You can be the judge of that.

The differences here mask all sorts of variations between different flavors of conservatives and liberals. Are right-wing libertarians as happy as religious conservatives? Are economic lefties more or less depressed than social liberals? We don’t know, because the data are too limited to get into that kind of detail.

In a post next week, I’ll dig into why conservatives have the happiness edge, hypotheses about world view and psychological differences, as well as some important lifestyle distinctions between right and left. After that, I’ll write about the happiness differences between people with moderate and extreme political views.

In the mean time, I welcome your thoughts.

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  1. Brandon says:

    Is this just a simple survey (i.e. not adjusted for income level, etc)? If that’s true, a simple explanation would be (as noted in the happiness part 4 post) that there are more liberals at the low end of the economic scale and they are hence less happy.

    Of course, there are all manner of details underlying this–the fact that more underserved minorities might identify as liberal (I’d imagine such people might be less happy overall). Absent that sort of detailed analysis, I’m not sure what this study overall shows us.

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  2. Nuclear Mom says:

    Very interesting. Does “weighted” mean for age and income? Given my perception that older=more conservative and richer=more conservative (think of all those Big Chill lawyers & investment bankers), does that explain some or all of the skewing? How about studies that show religious people are happier than atheists, and religious people=more conservative?

    As a liberal atheist who sometimes feels I’m no good, this study is depressing!

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  3. mgroves says:

    I think conservatives are probably more optimistic.

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  4. Zachary says:

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  5. Psychohistorian says:

    This analysis seems incomplete without a regression controlling for other predictive factors, such as income, religiosity, and so on. It seems possible (if not probable) that this happiness gap is explained by other factors that tend to coincide with political affiliation.

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  6. David says:

    Interesting topic. Without delving into it too much, I would say conversatives have more reason to SAY they are happy, not that they ARE happy. If we assume most conservatives are also Christians, it is seen as bad form for a Christian to not be happy. On the other hand, liberals are honest enough to admit that things could be better.

    At least that’s my take on it.

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  7. Nathaniel says:

    I’m not sure why this would be surprising. Conservatives by definition should be happier with the way things are at any given moment. Liberals tend to focus more on the way things could be better at some point in the future (which obviously means they spend at least some time thinking about the way things are wrong right now).

    Now I’m not talking about right/left or dem/repub, I’m talking about conservative/liberal.

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  8. gabber says:

    My first thought is that by definition a conservative is someone who resists changes to the status quo. If they’d rather stick with the current system, then they must be at least satisfied with it, if not happy. Conversely, a progressive or liberal, is typically a view point where they are dissatisfied with the status quo, and would like some kind of change. So a study on happiness of the two view points seems like it does nothing more than confirms the general definition.

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