The Politics of Happiness, Part 4

My last three posts have shown that conservatives are generally a lot happier than liberals; that religion is a major factor in this; and that worldview matters a lot as well.

But I have employed some minor sleight-of-hand in all this, lumping together “liberals” into a big group and “conservatives” into another. This is not the only way to separate people politically.

You probably have political opinions that are mostly conservative or liberal. But you might actually feel more at ease with moderates on the “other” side than you do with the hard core on your own side. In many ways, I believe there’s a more natural simpatico between moderates on the left and right than between moderate liberals and extreme leftists, or center-right folks and the fringiest right-wingers.

So here’s today’s question about politics and happiness: Who is happier — moderates, or people on the extremes?

I always thought it would have to be the moderates, hands down. After all, extremists actually advertise their misery with strident bumper stickers and signs like this one, which lots of people in Syracuse put in their yards in the run-up to the 2004 election, and some have left up since then. (This may help to explain Syracuse’s notoriously low property values.)

property values

A rival sign to this one showed up before the 2004 election on the lawns of the approximately eight lonely conservatives in Syracuse. It said, “BUSH MUST STAY! America Protected, Not Terrorism Accepted.” Oh yeah, that’s clever.

The purpose of such signs is two-fold, it seems to me. First, it is to express righteous anger, and to remind like-minded people they shouldn’t be happy about the status quo. Second, it is to provoke those evil neighbors who don’t agree with the sign. In other words, it’s all about making everybody unhappy, right?

Maybe so, but the data suggest that the sign-bearers themselves aren’t so unhappy. In fact, people who classify their own opinions as “extreme” are significantly happier than people closer to the middle.

In the 2004 General Social Survey, 35 percent of people who said they were extremely liberal were very happy (versus 22 percent of people who were just liberal). At the same time, a whopping 48 percent of people who were “extremely conservative” gave this response (compared with 43 percent of non-extreme conservatives). Twenty-eight percent of people squarely in the middle — “slightly liberal” to “slightly conservative” — were very happy.

Contrary to what I always believed, George W. Bush‘s harshest critics — those who have felt the predations of the Bush administration to the very depths of their souls — are quite likely to be a great deal happier than more moderate liberals. And back in the Clinton years, all those cable pundits declaring the end of Western civilization because of that vile “blue dress” business? Happy as clams, it seems.

A happiness edge enjoyed by the extremes persists even if we control for the other relevant forces like income, education, race, religion, and so on. (One quick note on this, in response to some comments on my past posts. Some folks have noted that I often explain figures without discussing my multivariate regressions. Anybody interested in methodological details for any of my posts can find them in the endnotes and technical appendix to Gross National Happiness. Cross my heart. I just figured most Freakonomics blog readers wouldn’t thrill to the details of full-information, maximum-likelihood tobit models.)

SurveySource: 2004 General Social Survey

Why are the people with relatively extreme views so happy, compared with the rest of us? I’ll dig into that question in the next post. But here’s a hint: If you’ve been following this series, you know that being religious is strongly correlated with happiness. And religious fervor comes in many forms — some of them political.


I wonder if liberals and conservatives parse "are you happy?" differently. For example, I (a liberal and an atheist) am quite happy at home and work, but politically I am quite unhappy.

Liberals and conservatives may also value happiness differently. A tradition-minded conservative might think happiness = good: people should be happy with things as they are so that they don't rock the boat. Meanwhile a change-hungry liberal may think happiness = bad: people need to stop being so complacent, open their eyes and do something about it.


This analysis misses one significant point.

Combined with those in the "moderate" camps, left and right, are those who can't bother to have strong political opinions. Among these are those who are depressed, clinically or otherwise.

This subset of depressed people can completely skew the numbers when it comes to associating happiness with political fervor.

Speaks English

I'm pessimistic about the optimist who doesn't know the difference between "their" and "they're", in a comment they're not ashamed to submit on their computer.
Is it any wonder the USA is going down the tubes?

John Birch

#25 stole my thunder.

A moderate weighs and thinks its views in a much less dogamatic approach. As for the extremes...ignorance is bliss.


could it be that maybe we who try to stay "balanced" have to really think things thru and weigh things out, in other words, "work @ it" a little bit harder, than those who see things only in one light and are happy to do so? Ignorance is bliss!


I would like to see the happiness of people with no political views or opinions. In other words: are people who don't give a da** about anything happier?


I still think it comes down to the earlier post in that conservatives, by and large, assume that they have the power to affect change in their lives. I think this sense of empowerment (whether real or imagined) creates more happiness.

With people who are more liberal, or even in the middle, they most likely feel powerless to affect change. This sense of complete lack of control would have to be frustrating (and thus making people happier).

I can't really explain the bump in the extremely liberal though...unless they find it fun to completely buck all systems and find some real enjoyment in that.


It is false to assume that moderates see things as grey, in opposition to the black and white views that some posts have claimed the "extreme" self-identifiers to possess. It's obvious that these posts (22, 18, 16, 15, 13, 6, 5) are using a self-incriminating argument; extremists are ignorant, unwavering, unable to deal with the fallibility of the framework of their perceptions while moderates recognize and intellectually engage the nuance of the world around them. This interpretation is doing anything but understanding the "grey" nature of those who identify as the political extreme and those who identify as the political moderates.

Post number 20, it should be noted, is one post that has recognized a limit of this study. But, in addition to the inability of these labels (extremely liberal-extremely conservative) to capture one's political identification (as 20 points out), the study fails to account for the complicated nature of an individual's proclaimed level of happiness.

One is correct to point out the limits of human understanding, but let us not forget to apply our own perceptions to the rigors of this human condition!



It makes a lot of sense that religious people would be happier. Religion gives you concrete rules about what the consequences of your actions will ultimately be and allows you, to a certain extent, to choose your fate. It's also, I imagine, very comforting to know that there is some force in control of things even if you personally aren't, that there is a reason that bad things happen to good people other than pure chance. I can certainly testify that coming to the conclusion that the world is simply chaotic with no guarantees other than the certainty of death is quite frightening.
And it certainly isn't a pleasant thought to think that you as the conscious entity you think of as yourself will entirely cease to exist at some point.

Joe S

The happiness factor seems to be correlated with certainty, the more confident in their position one is the happier one will tend to be evidently based on your information.

Personally, I am never certain of anything and have little faith in any afterlife, but I am very happy based on observations and conversations with others.

Maybe being certain that nothing is certain fills that need for us folks comfortable with ambiguity.

Troy Camplin, Ph.D.

I'm convinced that the happiest people are those whose world views are either completely in sync with the reality of the world or those for whom illusion is so all-encompassing that inconvenient facts never make their way into the shiny bubble of their ideology. People are unhappiest between these two extremes because on the one hand, they want to believe something, but they just can't delude themselves to reality. Since reality and their ideologies don't match up, they are unhappy.


the releasing of anger can better any medicine under the sun


I think this phenomenon is easily explained by the following: the extremist KNOW they are "right", and no amount of argument will change their mind. The moderates, however, do not see things as just black and white. There is probably a lot of doubt and questioning in the gray areas. Very rarely are we happy about ideas we have to struggle with.


Seems like most comments agree to some extent - is it not those who have not 'commited' to a decision that are less happy. Indecision is what makes us unhappy, and the more 'options' we consider without making a firm decision, the more unhappy we are.


As someone who was born and raised both politically conservative and fundamentalist Christian (and still struggling 20 years later to overcome the damage that was done), there is a simple explanation for the happiness phenomenon that can be summed up in a common old adage - ignorance is bliss.

Case in point, several years ago my mother told me that she's been feeling much less depressed now that she's stopped watching the news.


I think Thomas, in post #3, has hit the nail on the head, and is more perceptive than the original story or study. Without objective measures, of both political views, and of happiness, observing this relationship tells you very little, except about how people answer surveys, perhaps.
For example, I am a "moderate" (in my survey-answering behavior, less so in my actual voting patterns. I almost never give the extreme answer, on a survey, whether extremely happy, extremely satisfied, dissatisfied, or whatever. Many people are like that. But for those who happen to have a higher willingness to check the "very" category more often on a survey, why would we think they would do this in only one subject-area?


I suspect that if this study were done a few decades back, when there were far fewer lobbyists, right wing "think tanks" didn't exist and government had at least some concern for the average person's welfare, the levels of happiness would have been reversed.

Unfortunately, despite the blather from the right, today Americans live in a society where the interests of fundementalist morons, tax evading crooks and racist scumbags are the prime concern for the current administration. All this while whining about a percieved "liberal" conspiracy to deny them their "rights".


In some sense this is sorta obvious. Being a conservative means, in general, being content with the status quo, as far as the structure of society goes. (Being a liberal means, in general, wanting to reduce inequality and make changes to the status quo.) To the extent that contentment with the system predicts happiness, it's not really surprising that conservatives are happier.

I'm not sure why extremely liberal people buck the trend, though...

Steve Nesich

According to your data, conservatives as a whole seem "happier" than anyone else. I don't know if I buy this, however, as most conservatives I know are steaming mad at "the liberals", "the media", "the immigrants", "the teachers", "the taxes", blah, blah, blah, almost all of the time. (And this was true even a few years ago when they controlled all three branches of government.) Look at Bill O'Reilly. Does he seem jolly to you?

I question your methodology, definitions and classifications. However, I understand that this is an exceedingly inexact scientific inquiry. Thanks for trying anyway.


I'd agree with that assessment... extremists tend to have no room for self-doubt or doubt in the "rightness" of the cause, clearly a key component of being happy. Whereas all the moderates I know, myself included, are constantly weighing up various factors, questioning themselves and their beliefs etc. etc. It's a lot of analysis and introspection, in addition to the uncertainty caused when someone comes up with a good argument to oppose an opinion we hold. Perhaps ignorance (of the viability of alternative arguments) really is bliss?