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.


post #43 said: "Why are the vast majority of volunteers who work in Africa to alleviate hunger, AIDS, and poverty conservative religious people? "

I would argue that the reason religious conservatives are more frequently mobilized in the "heathen world" is because they refuse to recognize their own culpability for suffering right here in their own country. The liberals (secular and religious alike) are hard at work trying to lift up the poor and oppressed who are the victims of their Republican policies right here at home.


Perhaps people who are happy want things to remain as they are (ie they tend to be conservative) while people who are not happy want things to improve (progressive).


#20, you are absolutely correct - these words were addressed to agent Smith ;-)


It seems to me that no matter what data you get, self-identified happiness is not particularly meaningful. Aristotle argued that true happiness comes from virtue, since virtuous people had experienced both virtue and non-virtue and preferred the happiness that came with virtue (at least I think he did; my memory for college philosophy courses is pretty fuzzy, and I might be thinking of something/someone completely different). A more enlightening study might focus only on people who SWITCHED from conservative to liberal (or religious to secular) and asked them to compare the happiness that came with their previous lifestyle/worldview to the one they had come to more recently. I imagine that almost all of them would report greater happiness in their newer worldview, but it would be interesting to see by how MUCH the levels of happiness differ.

David Bell

Although the results of the survey seem credible, it is important to remember that being happy and reporting that you are happy on a survey are not the same thing. The data say that people who describe themselves as conservative also tend to describe themselves as happy. This may, or may not, mean that they are in fact happier. It could also mean other things, including that there are differences in openness, self-perception, or comfort with sharing personal details with strangers.


Actually, modern research indicates that lying to yourself does count as happiness. If it didn't then Madison Avenue would have ceased to exist long ago. And I believe the saying goes, "If ignorance is bliss tis folly to be wise." Optimists do look at life through rose colored glasses and they live longer, healthier, happier lives because of it. The data seems to suggest that nature is less forgiving of people who always see the glass as half empty even if they are factually correct to do so.


I admit I'm totally biased since I'm liberal and atheist, but I can't dimiss how tidily the "ignorance is bliss" adage explains these results. If you can dismiss the unpleasant things that conflict with your world view, or at the very least explain them away as the will of some cosmic genie who would never bring harm to you or your kin, how can you be anything but happy?

I was also reminded of the quote from Cipher...but have to note it was said to Agent Smith (!)...there, my nerd sensibilities are unoffended...


I guess it makes sense. If Im able to ignore the glaring hypocrisies and impossibilities that is religion; then I probably can also ignore them in politics, and I guess it's not much of a stretch to ignore them within myself too. I think there is ample evidence supporting the statement "ignorance is bliss".


My religion is poking fun of easily offended liberals, thus I am happy.


I think this difference is entirely based on the world-view differences and the religious part is just a consequence. In my mind conservatives are characterized with a more dogmatic world-view. They tend to live by a relatively small set of rules in which they strongly BELIEVE. They also believe that there is only one RIGHT way of doing things and if you follow that way, you will be alright. That I think is the basis on which any monotheistic religion would flourish. Thus the more wide-spread church-going among the conservatives.

Liberals on the other hand tend to accept that there are more than one right way of doing things. They would question the status quo more frequently and are less likely to believe that there is one single book of rules that defines our lives. Therefore they are less likely to follow any major religion.

I also like very much what Cypher said to Neo in the movie Matrix:
"You know, I know this steak doesn't exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth, the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? IGNORANCE IS BLISS."

The smaller your inner world is, the more significant you are in it. And the more fulfilled and happy you are ;-)



Maybe Republicans on average are happier because of a psychological defect. I presume psychopaths are less unhappy about murder and mayhem than the typical person, and that the deaf are less pertubed by the din of city streets than those with more normal hearing. Maybe Republicans, on average, suffer from the psychological defect of Voltaire's Dr. Pangloss, i.e. what they see around them is "the best of all possible worlds" while progressives and liberals see all around them a multitude of human suffering and a crying need for social intervention to increase the general public good.


Religious conservatives are happy? Ignorance, they say, is bliss.


REPORTED feeling more happy being the operative term. They filled out a questionnaire.

Questionnaires are notoriously bad judges of these sorts of things... I think it's important to look at other variables.

My personal opinion is that you're probably right: a religion builds a community, and belonging to a community is one of the big things that makes someone happier. Especially among older people, church communities are probably the most common kind of community.

But... it should be investigated with more care, and hopefully using something besides questionnaires.


Jinsto, when you say, "religion was introduced to the slaves in the Caribbean Islands," do you mean Christianity?

Thanatos Savehn

Well ....

1) Liberals tend to think they can change human nature. They keep trying to do so and in doing so keep killing humans by the millions. Being responsible, or the intellectual heir of those responsible, for the carnage of the last 150 years would make me sad too.

2) Modern liberals tend to be narcissistic nihilists yet they know that the end that awaits them is not an obit in the Times but rather a story along the lines of "After residents of #1462 XYZ Street reported a foul odor police entered the apartment of Larry Liberal. Mr. Liberal was found dead and police speculated he had been dead for several days. Police have been unable to find any relatives of Mr. Liberal. His cats have been sent to the ASPCA where they are likely to be euthanized." All their preening and strutting necessarily comes to naught and past the corruption of their bodies there is nothing either for those who remain or for themselves. How appalling.

3) Being collectivists/tribalists liberals value themselves according to their relative social pecking order which is greatly influenced by reputation which in turn is greatly influenced by whether they are right or wrong about things. Since pecking order is a zero sum game most liberals, being invariably wrong (since not everyone can be right) accordingly lose social rank and so become progressively more bitter.

Whereas ...

1) Conservatives tend to view life as a game. If their cards are good they're happiest. If they're bad they're just happy and accept their fate comforted by the knowledge that the love of those who birthed them and who grew up with them and whom they birthed will last whether or no.

2) Conservatives die surrounded by loving family in fact or in memory.

3) Conservatives navigate their lives by eternal stars rather than relative class position. Having a goal, and a mission, whether obtained or not, leads to satisfaction if one has steered as straight a course as he or she could; it is a comfort and leads to a peaceful demeanor.

It's simple really - outraged, bitter, unanchored and adrift people are highly unlikely to be "happy". Why would anyone (save the perpetually outraged and bitter whose only hope is to be first in the pecking order and so the least bitter and least outraged of the herd) be surprised?



Is anyone else reminded of the old adage, "Ignorance is bliss"?


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.


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


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.


Does lying to yourself count as happiness?