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.


Good point there. Religion makes people happier not only because they already have the answers, but also because the questions are already laid out for them. It is easier to think that there is someone in charge than to take personal responsibility for what happens around oneself.

Please keep up the good work!


You just need to read these comments to realize that liberals are indeed a bitter bunch...



An impromptu poll of 63 people at my office found that 78% of conservatives thought that they, as a group, were better than liberals. Only 46% of liberals felt the same.

Since these findings, like those in the study noted in Mr. Brooks' article, are based entirely on the participants' opinions, we can accept them as scientific fact. Therefore, Conservatives are better than Liberals. Please discuss.

Other studies of mine have found that numbers never lie, economists never distort facts to uphold their worldview, and, of course the "majority...[is] doing fairly well."

Thank God for indisputable facts.


How about life expectancy between conservatives and liberals? Is there any data on that?

Arthur Pece

What if conservatives and liberals are both right? It is very well possible that there are more grounds for optimism in red states/counties. Here is a relevant fact (first noted by Steve Sailer, to my knowledge): house prices are higher in blue states than in red states. This means that people can get a bigger house, or move closer to work, more easily in red states than in blue states. Note that this is true at any but the highest income levels.

Here is another relevant fact from the same source: house prices have increased more (1980--2004) in blue states than in red states. That suggests (at least to me) that, in blue states, income mobility is, effectively, a zero-sum game: if your income goes up, somebody else has to pay more for a house.

Taken together, these two facts suggest that the difference in optimism between conservatives and liberals comes to a large extent from differences in personal experience.



Perhaps upper income liberals are unhappy because they feel hypocritical.

Conservatives don't believe in income redistribution, so it doesn't bother them or make them feel too guilty if they're wealthy.

Liberals do believe in income redistribution, so the fact that they live in Manhattan apartments and have relatively relaxed jobs can (and perhaps should) bother them, especially because they believe in compelling everyone else to pay for social programs, yet have not themselves given everything that they reasonably could to help the poor.

John Stevens

We don't seem to have a common understanding of the meanings of liberal and conservative. However, I am reminded of findings by Alloy and Abramson, among others, which come under the general heading "Depressive Realism," which finds that those who suffer from depression evaluate their abilities, status, etc more accurately than those without depression.
As Gazi Islam pointed out, there is a chicken-and-egg question here.

Stephen D. Boyd


"The only thing that keeps poor-born people happy is that while they still have not had children, they can convince themselves of the false belief that they may become rich one day..."

There's a lot of truth in that statement, but the careless wording of it could easily give the wrong impression. Obviously, people with inadequate means need hope for a better future through economic security to be happy. Maybe you're just overgeneralizing the term "rich," but I think think those "poor" people just need to know that they can become "not poor" to have enough hope to really be happy. Not well-off, but well-enough to pay the bills and maybe take an occasional vacation.

Personally, I believe that in the US, society should be doing more to provide economic security for everyone, but I also believe there is too much emphasis on upward mobility for everybody in our culture now.


"The very word "liberal" is a bad word today, and an absolutely huge number of pro-choice, large-govt types who have never voted anything but Democrat will shy away from self-identifying as a liberal."

Incorrectomundo. The words "liberal" and"conservative" have been converted into near meaningless by "The Liberal Media". But in general, most comments here are on target: whether "riche" or "poor", ppl with more libertine moral standards are easier to please.


Here's a thought: Religious people and political conservatives are happier than secularists and liberals because they have a greater capacity for self-delusion.


"For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." Ecclesiastes 1:18

Stephen D. Boyd

This only really tells us about the happiness of people who SELF-IDENTIFY as conservative or liberal, not the happiness of people whose views on public policy, political theory, and ethics are conservative or liberal. The wildly successful PR/marketing of the GOP has caused a significant portion of the population to self-identify as conservatives despite actually preferring liberal policies.

The popular definition of conservative in the USA has come to mean caring about family, religion, traditional life, solid morals, plain-old-common-sense, freedom, the American flag, Main Street, and apple pie. On the other hand, liberal means untested academic theories from the ivy-league elites, special treatment for inferior people, high taxes, snobs who think they know better than we do about how we should live, abandonment of traditional natural families, treason, hedonism, blasphemy, putting weird foreign stuff before the American way, sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Liberal has become a dirty word, and the Democratic Party is complicit in this smearing when they talk about "lunch-pail Democrats" and "latte liberals"; it's never "lunch-pail liberals" and "latte Democrats". You never hear the phrase "blue-collar liberal" in the media, despite the established connection between labor and liberalism.

If you ask people about public health-care, the common good, sacrifice for a greater cause, and the few vs. the many, you will find that many of the self-identified conservatives are more liberal than their labels would indicate.

It's important to know how people self-identify, but it can be dangerously misleading to write about self-identification labels as if they were such a reliable indicator of people's views on public policy.

With that all said, these findings are fascinating. I'd like to find out more about the way liberals and conservatives think about human nature.



Would that be 'religionism'?


conservatives are quite often among the more well off, because conservative theory as a whole is based on the notion that a) taxes are bad, and b) that market insures that people get what they deserve. So, if you are wealthy, conservative theory appeals because you will pay taxes, and feel deserving rather than fortunate for your status in life. I believe that more often that not a person's status determines their politics, and so, of course, those who are at the top of the ladder are the same people who will choose conservative theory, and will be more likely to be happy. Show me that your studies are controlled for variables such as accumulation of wealth, health issues, and social status and then I will believe that perhaps there is something about conservatives that makes them more likely to be happy. It seems to me that since a vast majority of Americans subscribe to "liberal" positions, even when calling themselves "conservative" there is much defining to do here, and as far as I can tell not a lot of good "science." I would suggest that those who are happy with their lives are more likely to define themselves as conservatives, precisely becasue as conservatives they want to conserve things exactly as they are.


Mattia Landoni

A few disjoint comments from a foreigner.

I am Italian and in Italy "liberal" means, more or less, right-wing. It is true, however, that there are economic liberals both on the Right and on the Left. (As here, I would say, as in the good ole times when the Clintons were pro free-trade).

Go Free Trade! I am an Italian left-wing economic liberal.

What I see from this post is that, indeed, there is an overwhelming majority of leftists among the readers of this blog. Looks as if, after Milton Friedman, the American right has forgotten Economics. (I know here someone will cite Mrs. Clinton's unfortunate statements of last week, but she's not getting the nomination anyway because all the readers of this blog want Obama).

I'd have a couple of generic objections, but most of them have already been made:
- that conservatives are more optimistic about social mobility but they are, indeed, wrong (it would be nice of Mr. Brooks to post some comparative figures);
- that there may be some reluctance of a conservative to admit that he or she is not happy, self-fulfilled, and self-consistent - in other words a winner;
- that I would NEVER, EVER state that I am very happy but that does not mean I am not. I guess only fanatics and lovebirds state they are very happy.

That said, I agree both with the obvious role of religion (I don't see, however, that religion is a necessary component of right-wing culture) and that Aynrandian morality may play a role in making rich conservatives feel that they deserve what they got, as opposed to feeling just lucky. The author seems to know something about measuring happiness in a more reliable way, so... show us the real stuff.

Looking forward to the next one!


Archer Sully

Rich Webster definitely hit on part of the issue, but there's another side, which is reality. And reality argues quite convincingly against conservatives.

For starters, income mobility is mostly a fiction in this country, see:

Of course, then there's this:

Which is just a rehash of the Hubbard study which is refuted here:

There are, of course, many more studies, but in order to believe that the US has high income mobility you have basically have to believe in fairies. And of course, belief in fairies has been shown by peer reviewed studies to dramatically increase the happiness of white children aged 3-6 years.


am i the only one who wishes americans were smart enough to have more political descriptors than "liberal" or "conservative"?


Someone who believes everything is or will be okay, is just not cognizant of the things that could go wrong. The differences between these persons, conservatives, liberals, moderates, extrememist, or any other stupid label they try to hang on someone's neck, is the willingness to accept the idea that the cost of it actually happening is far worse than the cost of doing something preemptive in order to be prepared, whether it actually happens or not. Hurricane Karina is a perfect example. The cost of improving the barrier between city and nature would have been substantial, but pales in comparison to the actual cost that is basically uncalculable at this point. This is the difference between persons, the belief that its better to take the loss now, rather than deal with the consequences of thinking everything will magically be okay without any need for us to do something, and then having it happen. If a belief in God, or in hard work, or in anything else causes you to think that things are better than they are, then you are set up for major failure. And when that person is an elected official, or someone responsible for the masses, its a recipe for disaster. I happen to be the person who thinks about the worse case scenario, because I don't want it to be the end of all of us, and that makes it hard to be truly happy even when my life around me is okay. I'd rather do something now, so all of us don't end up with the short end of the stick. To me, that is optimism. Sleep tight.



Here's a good experiment to try: look through opinion polls and track the respective opinions of conservatives and liberals on whether there are WMD in Iraq and whether we should have invaded it or not. The fact that conservatives still believed that there were WMD after thorough searching revealed none makes me think conservatives tend to be happier because they can delude themselves from reality. It is clear that they delude themselves because as the Iraq occupation continues, less and less conservatives think we should have invaded it in the first place---the situation gets to be so dire that they can't maintain their faith any longer.

Curt Grewing

It seems to me that you are overlooking the most obvious explanation. If you are content with the status quo and do not want to change it, you are 1) happy and 2)conservative.