The Politics of Happiness, Part 5

My last post showed that people with relatively extreme political views tend to be significantly happier than moderates.

I’ll admit I have a harder time relating to political zealotry than I do to political views that simply oppose my own. I have definite opinions — especially on issues like regulation, taxes, and freedom — but I’ve looked at a lot of data in my life and know that it’s simply not realistic to assume that I’m right on everything.

Furthermore, most of my friends and family disagree with me. (Frankly, I’m just grateful to live in a country where none of us gets locked up for voting or saying what we think about politics.)

So why are the zealots so happy? Many readers of my last post suggested that there is a tremendous amount of comfort — even happiness — in total certainty. I think this interpretation is right, and applies to fundamentalists of every stripe.

The troubling characteristic about fundamentalists is that those who don’t agree with them are not just wrong, but maybe even evil. Many religions and creeds encourage the dehumanization of apostates, after all.

Is it hyperbolic to compare political extremists to religious fundamentalists? Read the comments section on any political blog for about ten seconds, and judge for yourself. Better yet, let’s look at some data (you know you want to).

The American National Election Studies employs something called a “feeling thermometer.” This is a public opinion survey tool in which respondents are asked to express their personal feelings about people and issues on a 0 to 100 scale. A freezing score of zero is commonly interpreted as absolute loathing, while 100 means adoration. A score of 50 is “neutral.” A score of 20 or below is unusual, and usually reserved for people and things we despise.

These data show that conservatives like other conservatives much more than liberals do, and vice versa. No surprise there. In 2004, non-extreme conservatives gave themselves a toasty average score of 80, but gave liberals a cooler 42. Non-extreme liberals gave themselves 74 but rated conservatives 41.

But political extremists make these temperature differences look paltry. Those who called themselves extremely liberal in 2004 gave conservatives an average thermometer score of 23, and two-thirds gave conservatives 20 or below. The average score for liberals by extreme conservatives was 27, and half gave liberals 20 or below. To put this into perspective, one 2006 survey found that in 2006, the countries of Cuba and Iran each received average scores of 27 by Americans.

Twenty-two percent of extremists gave people with the opposite viewpoint the absolute lowest score: zero. In one 2002 study, even Saddam Hussein got an average score of 8.

HappinessSource: American National Election Studies

These thermometer scores are ratings of people, not ideas: An ice-cold score is equivalent to saying, “I dislike a certain class of people simply because of the views they hold.” No matter what they say, the data reveal that folks on the extremes harbor real antipathy for the lumpen masses they perceive to be on the other side of the debate.

To review, then: Extremists may be the happiest people on both the left and right. But as a general rule, they don’t like you — unless you agree with them. You might remember this just in case you hear a friend with hard-core political views going on and on about the importance of tolerance.

This post concludes this series on happiness, which can be found here in its entirety.

Brian Briggs

The "happiness" of those having extreme political views- the zealots- isn't surprising to me; those people having absolute certainty in their political views are no different than those people whom have absolute certainty in a certain religious belief or members of a cult who are staryeyed with happiness.

By deciding that a political ideology is absolutely right, just as many people believe the bible is absolutely correct, or cultists that refuse to accept any truth but the one they believe in to be the only correct truth, these people haven't really found truth; they've escaped the natural inner struggle's of continued intellectual growth those of us who have to question our beliefs when presented with new facts or situations in life go through.

That "happiness" may just be an illusion that comes from giving up the strugggle that comes with continued intellectual growth. In essence what these people have done is taken the easy way out, and though they seem- and may be genuinely happy- they lose out on a much greater prize; the satisfaction that comes from continued growth that gives a far truer, deeper meaning to one's life.



After reading the complete series I wonder whether any happiness differences can be found across GENDERS. Could you write about this?


Haha, I have the quote as a signature for a forum I visit.

How about "ignorance is bliss"? Well, I guess more accurately it's only bliss if you don't know that you're ignorant. The rest of us that know the limits of our knowledge maybe find that limit a bit frustrating at times.


@ T-bone:
Precisely the quotation I was dashing to the comments thread to post. I am disgruntled, but have reservations about which of us is the better man. If I knew for certain, perhaps I would be happier.


Happiness, from the book just out, "Bliss" is not gender based and varies by sociological. economical and geographical situations. Google "SWB", Subjective Wellness Behavior, and pick up the many fine studies on happiness.
We all forget "Why Are We Here?" When our spirit, body and mind come across an event or action that is in tune with the answer, we feel happier.
As far as taking action to protect our planet and our children's future, maybe that's why we are here... The sociologists' use of the "Tragedy of the Commons" as an example of this aggressive action against global warming deniers maybe is a wake up call to save us all.

Jason Morris

I tend to believe the argument that certainty breeds happiness. I would parse it slightly differently. I would say that the feeling that your understanding of the world is an adequate predictor of the world is a good predictor of happiness. You live in a world that meets your expectations. I think cognitivie resonance is a real source of happiness.

My personal experience, however, is that I expect the world to be sortof random, and it has demonstrated that to me. My political views reflect that. So I don't see why I should be any less happy than an extremist. Nor do I see why a person who expects and experiences uncertainty can't hold any of the political views on the spectrum.

Unless we all doomed by our evolution to seek certainty in a world that may not have any?


Well. I must agree with the blog post here because I consider myself to be an extremist and am quite happy with myself as a result of it. For example, I loathe those who abuse the welfare & social security system because I do not see any reason for them to not work and feel that every working citizen has a right to snatch each & every one of those recipients out of their homes to work in order to make a living. I feel violators of the system should lose their children & go to jail where instead of outsourcing labor to foreign countries we make the convicts produce our goods. And amazingly enough I am quite a bubbly & cheerful young woman. So, go figure. Eh.


If you have the self-awareness to realize that you don't know everything, that's a good thing. But for some reason in politics, admitting any degree uncertainty and open-mindedness is characterized as weakness.

"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts." - Bertrand Russell


This series gives insight into extremism generally. To cut to the chase, Nazis in the 30's often showed extraordinary fervor and that was obviously coupled with as extraordinary hatred. If we look at that fervor in the light of this series, then we see people moving toward their individual happiness, attracted to the fervor, drawn to it, and getting from it as they become more committed a stronger and stronger sense of happiness.

Victor Klemperer's diaries have an amazing short description of a young Nazi zealot on a street corner preaching hatred. Why do that? Because it made him happy is one answer. Happiness for you may mean hatred toward others.


maybe it's Freudian- you only hate what you secretly love


Very interesting stuff. Thank you, everyone!

I find the concept of certainty to be the most provocative here. In my own internal explorations I find that I feel angst over my lack of certainty in so many areas; there are just so many sides to every issue, so many tradeoffs to be made, so many connnections and unintended consequences, so little unambiguous data. (Even though many people say "the numbers speak for themselves," they really don't. The numbers speak through interpreters.) In fact, I feel my internal red flags begin to wave whenever I DO feel certain.

Perhaps it's my mechanism to create happiness out of uncertainty (and if it is, there's nothing wrong with it :)), but I feel good about my doubts. Whenever I explore them, with self-dialog or in conversation with people of different viewpoints, I feel that I learn something. And that makes me happy.


furthermore, there is an important distinction between advocating government tolerance and maintaining personal tolerance. one could lobby for government tolerance of marriage between homosexual human beings without personally tolerating it.



Yes, tolerance just means "to tolerate", but I've seen plenty of extremists on both sides of the aisle that seem to be quite comfortable with locking up/shooting/deporting their counterparts.

For example, specific Global Warming zealots have, on numerous occasions, said that those who disagree with them should be fined, or jailed, or have their cars seized, etc.

At the same time, extremist conservative spoke openly about boycotting Dunkin Donuts because of the unintended implications of the way Rachel Ray was wearing a scarf!

I wouldn't expect a tolerant group to advocate a boycott or jail for those who disagreed with them.


To Paraphrase Shakespeare:

"[A reader] doth protest too much, methinks.



For his 2007 voting record, Obama was rated most liberal in the senate by a conservative group, yes. But before 2007, he was rated by that same group to be perfectly average for a Democratic senator, and the senate itself is a fairly moderate/conservative (in the true sense of conservative) body regardless of which side of the isle you're on.

The most conservative and liberal senators would both be considered very moderate by any sane measure, and certainly compared to the most conservative/liberal house members. I don't think any senator would be considered an extremist in the sense that this study is talking about, but there are plenty of extremist house members.



I don't think anyone is claiming extremists are never intolerant, we're all well aware that many are.

But the last line of the blog post seems to imply that anyone with strong political views is incapable of being tolerant, or that the attributes are inherently contradictory (and thus anyone with strong views claiming to advocate tolerance is either a hypocrite or a liar?).


This thread fell prey to Godwin's Law rather quickly.


Fascinating data, but I'm not sure what the last sentence is supposed to mean. Tolerance doesn't mean you like someone, it means you tolerate them. Just because someone hates you or your views doesn't mean they're necessarily intolerant of you or your views.

Tolerance doesn't require acceptance or endorsement, or even liking, it just means (in the current political/social context) that you put up with those people because they have every right to be as stupid, horrible and evil as they want, so long as they aren't preventing others from being stupid and evil in their personally desirable ways.


Isn't Obama the most liberal (as defined by the right) of any member of the Senate?


But the sum of the two thermometer curves peaks in the middle.

So if you find yourself running into a wide variety of people, you will enjoy their cumulative company the most if you are not extremist, and the least if you are extremist.