The Politics of Happiness, Part 2

Arthur Brooks — who has appeared on this blog a few times — has just published a new book, Gross National Happiness. He has agreed to blog here periodically on this subject and we are very pleased to have him.

Last week I posted on the happiness difference between conservatives and liberals. Non-partisan survey data clearly show a large, persistent “happiness gap” favoring the political right.

Lots of readers weighed in, offering explanations for these data patterns. Here were their most frequent explanations:

1. Conservatives and liberals have different lifestyles, particularly regarding religion and marriage, which explains why conservatives are happier.

2. Conservatives have a world-view that — right or wrong — lends itself to greater happiness.

3. Brooks is an untrustworthy fool.

While #3 might be meritorious, let’s leave it aside and just focus on explanation #1 here and #2 in the next post.

There is good evidence to back up demographic explanations for the happiness gap, and I have found in my research that they soak up about half the gap between left and right. Religion is arguably the most important of these characteristics.

Consider a couple of facts:

The 2004 General Social Survey (G.S.S.) reveals that 43 percent of people who attended a house of worship weekly (“religious” people, for short) said they were “very happy” with their lives, versus 23 percent of people who attended seldom or never (“secularists”).

Religious people are a third more likely than secularists to say they are optimistic about the future. Secularists are nearly twice as likely as religious people to say, “I am inclined to feel I am a failure.” Big happiness differences persist between religious and secular folks even when we correct for income, education, race, sex, and age.

Now combine these with the familiar evidence on politics and religion:

According to the 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, religious conservatives outnumber religious liberals in America by nearly four to one.

The American political left is getting more godless, while the right is turning ever-churchier. While 27 percent of “extremely liberal” American liberals attended religious services weekly in 1974, only 16 percent did so by 2004.

In contrast, the percentage of “extremely conservative” church-attending conservatives rose over the same period from 29 percent to 57 percent.

No surprise, then: religious practice explains a good portion of the left-right happiness gap. In fact, when we combine religion and politics, happiness differences explode: see the chart below.

Happiness ChartReligion, politics, and happiness, 2004. Source: General Social Survey

Even after accounting for religion (and a few other things, like marriage), however, a lot of the gap is still unexplained, and thus we also need to talk about world-view differences that might also affect happiness. My next post will dig into some of these differences.

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  1. chappy says:

    Dear Sir,
    Please run this data on happiness against income. It seems painfully obvious to me that there is high correlation between income and political affiliation. If you can show me otherwise then I would find some credence to the way you parse the data. If you cannot show this I think you’re just saying the same thing as Justin Wolfers but using ancillary (and possibly insignificant) traits/variables.

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    • Corey says:

      I ran an OLS regression using the GSS data on peoples political views to predict happiness controlling for income among other things and the income was one of the least statistically significant variables. the only statistically significant variable among the political views (ranging from extremely liberal to extremely conservative) was extreme conservativism which was positively correlated with being very happy. however when i ran the regression again modifying the dependent variable from very happy to include pretty happy as well as very happy extremely conservative was no longer statistically significant, the only statistically significant variable corresponding to political views was extremely liberal which was positively correlated. the statistical significance was at the .05 level for all variables. the interpretation seems to be that more extreme conservatives responded that they were very happy, while extreme liberals were happy in general more so than any other political view.

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  2. Erika says:

    It’s possible also that self-selection plays a role. I’m in the left column and am reasonably happy but not glowingly so on most days. I find that religion irritates me so I got out of that gig as it was making me less happy. However, religions do provide a relatively stable community and having a friendly community of good friends can increase happiness and lifespan more than stopping smoking. So the people who don’t have religion might not have a similar community to fall in with, lowering their happiness.

    Another thing to consider is that self-righeousness causes your brain to produce a lot of feel good chemicals…

    I read an article (I think in SEED magazine) a while back that talked about inherent happiness – one of those “why are most lotto winners back to their pre-win happiness levels a year later” kinds of assessments. They mentioned that there were very few ways to increase inherent happiness, assuming basic food/shelter needs were met. Plastic surgery was very successful. Another was writing down 3 things that made you happy today, then doing this for 2 weeks. It caused a 6 month bump in inherent happiness in their study.

    For this reason, my blog entries usually end with 3 things that made me happy that day. And I think it has helped me refocus on the positive rather than focus on the all too prevalent things that make me cranky. Not that I ignore the bad stuff, I just find it easier to let it go.

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  3. dix says:

    Erika #2, God knows (no pun intended) liberals are never self righteous ;-)

    Of course it all begs the question whether religion makes people happy or do happy people join religions.

    -a happy secular conservative

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  4. Jintso says:

    Religion is the opiate of the masses. It works better on the less educated and economically disadvantaged. When religion was introduced to the slaves in the Caribbean Islands, it was not meant to bring them “salvation”. It was meant as a political tool to control and quel the riots.
    Religion is based on faith – basically a suspension of reason in favor of belief. So basically the conservatives are delusional.

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  5. Barfo says:

    Does lying to yourself count as happiness?

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  6. cara says:

    Excuse me? Religion is “lifestyle” not “viewpoint”? That’s highly debate-able. If that’s the “lifestyle” difference, then number 2 clearly wins.

    I’m sorry but I find this categorization mildly offensive and anything but objective.

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  7. Shannon says:

    It seems there is a chicken or egg argument that is being ignored a little. Could it be that happy people tend toward conservatism BECAUSE they are happy and see no need for change?

    Also, it seems that the correlation between happiness and religion is meant to imply that the act of attending church (or other “house of worship”) makes a person happier. I have a theory that a person’s willingness to accept things as they are will impact both happiness and likelihood of religious affiliation.

    I don’t claim for a moment to understand these things. I like the intent of the study, but think things like this are always more complex than simple cause and effect.

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  8. Robin says:

    Have you read “Conservatives Without Conscience”? Is it possible that some of the ideas about followers and dominators could explain some of the gap? For the select group of conservatives discussed, it seems to me the RWA’s might see themselves as happier because they reinforce each other’s beliefs. Just a thought.

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