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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.