The Politics of Happiness, Part 3

In my last post I showed the large happiness differences between religious Americans and secularists, and argued that this is a big part of the reason conservatives are so much happier than liberals. But I also noted that religion and other lifestyle distinctions still only explain about half the gap. In this post, I’ll look at the role of divergent world views to explain the rest.

Before I turn to my own explanations, here are two that I got from people I admire.

Nobel laureate and Princeton professor Daniel Kahneman has pioneered happiness measurement techniques with several of his colleagues (including Princeton star economist Alan Krueger, with whom I shared a fun discussion about happiness on a radio show last week). Mr. Kahneman told me that conservatives think the world is fairer than liberals do, and this makes them happy:

If you believe that people generally get from life what they deserve to get, and if you belong to the majority who are doing fairly well (employed and healthy, for example), you will probably be more satisfied with life than an equally fortunate person who believes that there is much stubborn unfairness in the world.

In other words, that liberal you know who drives a Beemer isn’t very happy about it because he feels guilty.

Psychologist Philip Tetlock is a professor of leadership at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. He suggests that conservatives seek out simplicity and clear moral values:

Conservatives quite unapologetically prefer leaders who project can-do decisiveness and dissonance — free rhetoric anchored in solid moral principles.

Assuming that it is easier to be happier in a world where right and wrong are crystal clear, this might lead conservatives to be happier than liberals.

In my book I argue that conservatives are more optimistic about the future than liberals are, and believe in each individual’s ability to get ahead on the basis of achievement.

Liberals are more likely to see themselves and others as victims of circumstance and oppression, and doubt whether individuals can climb without governmental help. Consider a bit of evidence.
The 2005 Maxwell Poll on Civic Engagement and Inequality asked, “How much upward mobility — children doing better than the family they come from — do you think there is in America: a lot, some, or not much?” Among those sampled, 48 percent of below-average income conservatives believed there’s “a lot,” versus 26 percent of upper-income liberals.

In the same poll, 90 percent of the poorer conservatives agreed that, “While people may begin with different opportunities, hard work and perseverance can usually overcome those disadvantages.” Just 65 percent of richer liberals agreed.

The liberal-conservative differences on these questions persist when we control not just for income, but also for education, sex, family situation, religion, and race.

You can decide for yourself whether the conservative edge in hope and optimism is warranted or not. You might think that conservatives are in La-La Land, and that people really are stuck, socially and economically. Or you might think that liberals are a bunch of pessimistic grouches. Some hypothesize that the basis of liberal political power is convincing folks that they are victims, and keeping them that way. Others say conservative power actively perpetuates what we academics like to call “false consciousness.”

So far, I have been clumping together all “liberals” and all “conservatives” in the discussion. Of course, there are many flavors of each, from centrists to radicals. So who is happier — moderates or extremists? That will be the subject of my next post.

But here’s a hint: Remember that guy in front of you in traffic with the “If You Aren’t Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention” sticker on his car? Believe it or not, he’s probably happier than you are (unless, of course, you have a similar sticker on your car). Stay tuned for proof, and in the meantime, thanks for your thoughts.

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  1. Lobbyist says:

    Interesting. What about liberals who are engaged trying to change the world? I lived for five years in a third world country working at a great microcredit organization, and I still serve on that organization’s Board of Directors. This may sound odd, but I do’t let the problem of global poverty depress me — I focus instead on the good my organization does and the good things we are doing collectively to stop it. I find problems about which I do very little to be more of a downer. Maybe this is what you were hinting at with the ending and the bumper sticker.

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  2. doug says:

    Regarding the bumper sticker “If you Aren’t Outraged, You’re Not Paying Attention”

    I’d stick to being concerned about the things you can control and don’t get too hyped about those things you can’t control.

    If the things you can control are making you crazy, well then…

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  3. frankenduf says:

    some of this stuff is sheer bunk- the empirical fact of the matter is that inequality systematically increases under Republican but not Democratic presidents- this data is presented in Larry Bartel’s new book ‘Unequal Democracy’- why this happens is not clear, but still better analysis than a fairy tale about liberal political power entrenching stratification- the data supports an opposite fairy tale- the basis of conservative political power is convincing folks that they are victims (sinners/consumers/marginalized voters) and keeping them that way

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  4. Rich Webster says:

    I think the cause and effect are inverted here. I think people who, in some way, identify with people who don’t fit in the mainstream, because they’re not mainstream, or have not been in the past, tend to be liberal.

    Maybe they are gay, have experienced mental illness, are ethnically or culturally displaced, or have loved ones that fit these descriptions.

    People who are in the mainstream, and don’t see societal obstacles to their happiness, are more likely to be conservative.

    By being mainstream, life appears simpler, and people outside the mainstream seem to be bizarre, problematic and in need of marginalization. They think of their own culture and language as THE culture and language, and think of these things as eternal and lasting and proven.

    When ‘outsiders’ object to social standards that exclude or abuse them, conservatives are reinforced in their belief that they are troublemakers, and exclude them further, alienating them into almost subhuman status, both in society and in law.

    At various times in this country, every minority has experienced this marginalization and had to fight to be included. Many people are politically aligned with liberals, though psychologically they might be conservative, because they belong to an excluded group. But they still use exclusionary tactics. Conservative-minded gays and lesbians may marginalize bisexual or transgenders because they’re a competitive minority, and outside their ‘norm’ of ‘gayness’, while liberal-minded ones may want to include them because they empathize with their excluded nature… yet all may be aligned with the liberal party or call themselves liberal because only liberals are willing to accept the current most abused minority as equals and contributors to society.

    People who live comfortably in the mainstream simply don’t have to excercise their empathy much, because all the people they identify with and care about look and act like them, and they’re all one happy family. When they DO empathize, it is with someone they already have a relationship with, one who is inside their circle of OK people, who then experiences some tragedy like cancer.

    When a close insider turns out to be gay, for instance, they have a choice between excluding that person – alienating them completely, or recognizing that they were previously wrong to have alienated gays. But they may still oppose gay marriage… because, once again, that is outside the mainstream.

    The delusion of “I am normal, I am OK, justice works because it works for me, and agitators and special interests are the enemy of everything that is OK’ is characteristic of the conservative perspective.

    One of my favorite recent quotes (not exact, from memory) of a conservative comedian/commentator Dennis Miller talking to Jon Stewart: “You don’t actually BELIEVE that the planet is getting hotter, do you? Do you ACTUALLY think the seas are going to rise?”

    Jon: “I’m Jewish, I already bought a boat.”

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  5. Matt says:

    Whoa. I can’t wait for tomorrow!

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  6. Ken says:

    I’m not sure whether one should ask “are conservatives happier” or “are happier people more likely to be conservative”. The original meaning of conservatism was the philosophy of wanting only gradual change, as opposed to the more radical changes favored by liberalism. Why would it be surprising that happy people want things to stay the same, and unhappy people want things to change?

    To be sure, both conservatism and liberalism have strayed a long way from their roots, but I think a lot of conservatives and liberals still think of themselves in those terms.

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  7. Thedoc says:

    association is not causation, association is not causation, association is not causation. Is it that A (political views) leads to B (being happy), or is it that X leads to both A and B. Let’s name X being wealthy, whether inherited or made.

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  8. Deborah says:

    I count both conservatives and liberals among my friends. I would have to say that it is the liberals who seem to lead smoother lives and the conservatives who are more likely to blame problems on the world being somehow unfair to them. Of course, they tend to feel good about themselves since nothing that goes wrong is their fault. In many ways, it seems to be the liberals who are leading the life based on self-determination, which is supposed to be the philosophy of the right.

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