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.


achilles3

But doesn't it matter WHEN you ask the person?

If you asked a republican if he was happy 9-10-01 would he respond the same 4-24-08?

Are conservatives happy when a republican in office and unhappy when a democrat is???

B King

Conservative and liberal, first are foremost, are merely labels that are blanketed on the personalities, characteristics, and point of views of any given person. Each label has their own connotative and denotative definitions.

From the denotative view point, of course more conservatives would label themselves as happy compared to liberals. Liberals want change, conservatives want to keep the status quo. Hence, if a person is happy, why would they challenge the normatives in their life or society? And if a person is unhappy, they desire happiness or positive emotions, and they strive for change.

A better survey, in my opinion, would not stop at asking a person if they are conservative or liberal. I would take those 2 terms out altogether. Instead, I would ask specific questions on a person's ideology, then see the specific similarities between certain political views and whether or not they impact happiness.

Not all humans are politically active either, if one is passionate about their beliefs, then there will be a stronger correlation between what they believe and how happy they are.

Conservative and liberal, connotatively speaking, are very broad terms and each person has their own definition and associations of the 2 labels. There is no need for the labels at all, for they merely generalize belief systems. I'd venture to say that most Americans don't agree entirely with either platform and have diverse views on both sides of the spectrum.

2 questions that remain unclear:

Does a belief in define a person's happiness?
Or does a person's happiness define their beliefs?

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Anne

There are two types of liberals I have encountered:

1. angry people who occasionally experience short spans of happiness but generally are always in a rage about something. These people are usually very intelligent and well educated. they are happy to debate/discuss politics but will quickly fly into a rage if effectively challenged. It can be an incandescent rage at times and feelings on both sides may be hurt, sometimes seriously. these are extremely caustic and defensive people which usually make one think that there are unresolved childhood issues lurking underneath the rage. these people are incredibly close minded and will viciously argue that they are open minded at the same time they totally shut down any opposing points of view or opinions. these people tend to be middle class and middle upper class.

2. young/immature people, flaky people, ignorant or uneducated people. these people tend to have less of a purpose to being liberal and are liberal out of habit, fashion, or other factors. these people tend not to debate political issues because they lack the ability or desire to do so. they regurgitate talking points and slogans but will not be able to defend them if challenged and will not really care to anyway. these people tend to be lower class to lower-middle class. Students, minorities, hippies make up this group.

There are three types of conservatives that I have encountered:

1. the "angry white man" conservative. this has already been discussed at length in Gary Hubbell's article. google it.

2. the evangelical conservative. home of the gay haters, pro-lifers, etc. Some of them are great people and some of them are sick and even more are horrible. Some of their views and actions are great and some are deplorable.

3. the rural/southern conservative. conservative because of peer pressure and/or laziness. George Bush's biggest voting bloc. these are your auto mechanics with American flag stickers on their pickup trucks. these are the people who wear camouflage hats purchased at gas stations and shoot at Osama Bin Laden cutouts at target practice. these people tend to be lower-middle class, uneducated, and extremely ignorant.

Because of these experienced that I have had, I find it embarrassing to be identified as a liberal or conservative or even as a republican or a democrat. I prefer to be identified on an issue-by-issue basis. I share some traits with every group just mentioned, and sahre some of the views of all the groups just mentioned.

I am not a moderate; I am an independent.

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Maurits

If a conservative is someone who resists change and a liberal is someone who advocates change, that is an explanation for the happiness difference. After all, the happier you are with the curren state of affairs, the less you'd want to change it.
- Happy Liberal

Peter

AEI? The propaganda outfit funded by Scaife? The folks so committed to confusing the public by twisting statistical data to support a pro-corporation point of view?

C'mon, y'all. This is ridiculous.

Granted, the question of who is happier - liberals or conservatives - is a frivolous question, but the Freakonomics blog should not make itself an extension of the AEI propaganda machine, nor any other propaganda outfit so committed to confusing the public. There _is_ such a thing as factual analysis - factual propaganda - but AEI is funded specifically to confuse the public, and should not be affiliated with this blog in any way - even for a guest article.

jac

I think the answer may be a little bit counter intuitive. Perhaps the answer is that conservatives are a bit more pessimistic about the word. They do not suffer the delusion that they can and should solve every problem. As George Will noted of pessimistic conservatives, they are always either being proved right or pleasantly surprised.

Thanatos Savehn

I always think about the relative wealth and social pecking order literature whenever this issue comes up. You know them, the studies that show how some people, when asked if they'd be happy with a $20,000/yr pay raise if at the same time their neighbors got a $100,000/yr raise, promptly say "hell no!" while others say "a $20,000 raise! yipeee!".

The former exhibit herd-like behavior and are primarily concerned with status. Thus the fighting within the kibbutzim over those rooms with an extra square inch or two of space. This is the natural state of the collectivist and they're always either scheming to move up or fretting about moving down the pecking order. Thus their unhappiness.

The later are are the individualists. They measure themselves against goals or standards they've set for themselves or that have been set by religions or philosophies. When they've met those goals or standards they're happy, whether rich or poor.

From my personal experience I offer the examples of my Dad, a center right sort of conservative (aka former Democrat) and his best friend (a center left sort of liberal).

Our families would often go on vacations together and (too) many times we stopped to see famous mansions. My Dad would marvel at the grandeur and beauty without a hint of envy. Indeed, if asked whether he'd like such a place he'd always say something like "No way; can you imagine what a headache it would be to keep this place up?". His best friend though couldn't help but tut-tut about how awful it was that anyone could have so much money and he'd poke around until he found a piece of furniture or china or silverware that he could claim was cheap, fake or ill-made.

His best friend drove a big Cadillac convertible, had a big house and lived large and yet to the end of his days was always after something he never did find and died an unhappy man. My Dad, well, he and Mom just keep on going and loving life. They set off on their journey guided by some unseen North Star and, judging by their good health and joyful contentedness at a recent gathering of kids and grandkids, seem to have navigated life just fine without measuring themselves against the other people they met along the way.

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Brad King

All people are biased, the conservative will say that they live their life with more meaning than the liberal. The liberal will say the same thing about conservatives. But all belief systems are cultivated by experiences, surroundings, and individual traits of each person's own mind.

What does it really mean to be happy? If you are happy do you walk around smiling like a clown and telling jokes all day?

I don't think it's about happiness, I think it's about fulfillment and the pursuit of pleasure. While each person has their own way of achieving those 2 things, the way I see it, nothing brings more fulfillment than having good relationships with other people, living this life with reason and purpose, and living a life that will ultimately make the world a better place -- both in the now and in the future.

Jean Naimard

Well, yes, of course.

Conservatives adhere to a very simplistic world view ("the poor only need to blame themselves if they have made the lifestyle choices that make them to be poor"), so they do not agonize about trying to make the world better, because for them, the world is the best possible.

se7en

How can a liberal be happy, when he's totally okay with killing unborn children?

Mike Huemer

Three thoughts occur to me:

1. Some have correctly pointed out that self-reports of happiness are not 100% reliable. However, (a) one should expect *some*, pretty significant correlation between self-reported happiness and actual happiness, (b) there doesn't seem to be any reason to expect conservative self-reports to be less accurate or more skewed toward happiness than liberal self-reports, and (c) the differences are very large (46 vs. 28%), so the *qualitative* result can survive quite a lot of error in self-reporting.

2. Conservatives are more likely to view the world as fundamentally just: People attain success in life through hard work and ability. We live in the greatest country on Earth. The world is governed by an omnipotent and perfect being. And any temporary injustices in this life will be fixed in the afterlife.

3. But, against my #2, I think that many of the above comments (a) overestimate the importance of political beliefs in people's lives, and (b) overestimate how political most survey respondents are. Most people, even though they may answer the survey by calling themselves "conservative" or "liberal", have very little to do with politics, spend very little time thinking about it, and have very casual opinions about it. A person who says he's "liberal" is *not* likely to be all depressed because of the problem of world poverty, regardless of what the stereotype of the "liberal" is--the overwhelming majority of survey respondents were probably ordinary people, not the sort of people you find writing liberal blogs or hosting conservative talk shows.

This suggests to me that the most likely causal story is that some third psychological factor (e.g., tendency to take optimistic interpretations of events?) causes both conservative attitudes and greater happiness.

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Roger

in one definition, conservative means "conserving the status quo" - so it would follow that they are happier with the current state of the world. where liberals, seeking change, would be less happy with the current state of affairs.

alisa

Happiness research in general raises some questions for me because it describes self-reported happiness, and implicitly assumes that that's an important measure. Some surveys have found people in poor African countries are happier than US residents, but this seems misleading -- not because I suspect the Africans of lying, but because your internal definition of "unhappiness" might differ depending on whether your biggest worry is famine or self-discovery. Are affluent, dissatisfied people really worse off than stoic poor people?

What this means for the conservative/liberal divide is that conservatives may simply be more likely to consider their lives good enough to qualify as "happy," while liberals itch for improvement.

A survey like this might be better if it included some "story" questions, which described fictional individuals and asked the respondent to rate their happiness. Then scale accordingly: a "happy" person who rates most other people "happy" is reporting something different than a "happy" person who rates most people "unhappy."

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Frank

I conducted a similar regression with the GSS data. I found that Democrats are actually happier under a Republican president than a Democratic president.

ss

Conservatives have faith. Things are out of their hands. Liberals have less faith and thus want to fix things themselves on an individual level with marginal tangible success on a large scale.

Gavin

I am not sure that one can say that conservatives might be happier because of a higher paycheck. Recent studies (which anyone can google) find that liberals actually make more money than conservatives.

Michelle

I like your writing style, Brooks. Looking forward to more articles from you.

Judson

The conclusion that I extrapolate from this study, as well as the various postings, is that moderates are likely the most well adjusted individuals. Moderates have a balanced and carefully considered view of things. Our world and societies issues are far too complex to be understood from one side or the other.

Defining one's self as happy is easy if your outlook is simplistic. But, is does saying that you are happy mean that you are actually fulfilled, satisfied, and have met your potential as a human being? Or, does it just mean that you like the stuff you have, and the way you spend your time.

And for those who think that moderates are wishy-washy. I consider myself to be a hard-core moderate. Liberals are idealistic fools. Conservatives are self-centered jerks. The truth, and reality, lie between those two extremes.

Troy Camplin, Ph.D.

I would like to see a few things. 1) I would like to see a correlation between levels of happiness and the political distribution along the Nolan chart, which sees politics in 2 dimensions rather than 1 dimension. 2) I would like to see a correlation between political beliefs (Nolan chart, again) and the emergentist psychosocial theory of Claire Graves, which shows human psychosocial complexity to go through stages. And 3) I would like to see if there is any correlation between psychological complexity and happiness, especially in relation to social complexity of participants.

liberalarts

This is an interesting subject. I look forward to hearing the connection between race and income, both of which are correlated but not perfectly so with liberalism.