post by Bill Gardner
Arthur Brooks summarizes interesting psychological data on US political affiliation and subjective well-being.
Scholars on both the left and right have studied this question extensively, and have reached a consensus that it is conservatives who possess the happiness edge. Many data sets show this. For example, the Pew Research Center in 2006 reported that conservative Republicans were 68 percent more likely than liberal Democrats to say they were “very happy” about their lives. This pattern has persisted for decades. The question isn’t whether this is true, but why.
This is not my area, and I'll just assume that Brooks is right about the American data. However, I doubt that he has looked at all the data that he needs to.
Brooks suggests that one reason might be that conservatives are more likely to be married and more likely to be religiously observant. This explanation appeals to me: I'm married, a long-time practicing Buddhist, and happy.
The social psychologists Jaime Napier and JohnJost have another explanation.
...we found that increasing economic inequality (as measured by the Gini index) from 1974 to 2004 has exacerbated the happiness gap between liberals and conservatives, apparently because conserva- tives (more than liberals) possess an ideological buffer against the negative hedonic effects of economic inequality... political conservatism is a system-justifying ideology in that it is associated with the endorsement of a fairly wide range of rationalizations of current social, economic, and political institutions and arrangements... the endorsement of system-justifying beliefs is generally associated with high personal satisfaction, as well as increased positive affect...
Or, briefly, conservatives rationalize away inequality that troubles liberals. Brooks objects to this, not so much to the explanation but to the implication that conservatives are hypocrites. Conservatives see a world of liberty and value that. They are not troubled by the distribution of outcomes. That is just what they believe. On Brooks's (and my) view, the attribution of hypocrisy (which Napier and Jost may not have intended) is gratuitous.
However, Brooks' claim that conservatives are happier is not supported by international comparisons of subjective well-being. Sacks, Stephenson, and Wolfers report that across nations better-off people are happier. Keeping in mind that Republicans are more affluent than Democrats, perhaps Republicans are happier because they are richer? Affluent people are also more likely to be married. It would be important to know how much marriage and religious observance continue to explain after you control for wealth and income.
More importantly, do the international data even show an association between conservatism and happiness? For example, data from the world values survey show that the social democratic and secular Danes are the happiest people in the world, and substantially happier than Americans. The social democratic and largely secular Canadians are also happier than Americans. I believe that marriage rates are also lower in Denmark and Canada than the US. So is there really an association between political affiliation and happiness?
Before we speculate about why conservatives are happier than liberals, we need to be sure this is really the case. We need a model (like this one) for the data that simulaneously addresses both inter-national and intra-national associations between politics and happiness.