It may be one of the most surefire findings in all of social psychology, repeatedly replicated over almost five decades of study: American conservatives say they are much happier than American liberals. They also report greater meaning and purpose in their lives, and higher overall life satisfaction. These links are so solidly evidenced that, for the most part, modern social scientists simply try to explain them. They’ve put forth numerous possible explanations.
There are a couple clear contributors to point out first. Marriage tends to make people happier, and conservatives are more likely to be married. Religious belief is also linked to happiness, and conservatives tend to be more religious.
But these explanations don’t account for the entire gap, which equates to about a half-point on a four-point scale, a sizable happiness divide.
Social psychologist Jaime Napier, Program Head of Psychology at NYU-Abu Dhabi has conducted research suggesting that views about inequality play a role.
“One of the biggest correlates with happiness in our surveys was the belief of a meritocracy, which is the belief that anybody who works hard can make it,” she told PBS. “That was the biggest predictor of happiness. That was also one of the biggest predictors of political ideology. So, the conservatives were much higher on these meritocratic beliefs than liberals were.”
To paraphrase, conservatives are less concerned with equality of outcomes and more with equality of opportunity. While American liberals are depressed by inequalities in society, conservatives are okay with them provided that everyone has roughly the same opportunities to succeed. The latter is a more rosy and empowering view than the deterministic former.
Two other studies explored a more surprising contributor: neuroticism, typically defined as “a tendency toward anxiety, depression, self-doubt, and other negative feelings.” Surveyed conservatives consistently score lower in neuroticism than surveyed liberals.
In 2011, psychologists at the University of Florida and the University of Toronto conducted four studies, aiming to find whether conservatives are more “positively adjusted” than liberals.
They found that conservatives “expressed greater personal agency, more positive outlook, more transcendent moral beliefs, and a generalized belief in fairness” compared to liberals.
“The portrait of conservatives that emerges is different from the view that conservatives are generally fearful, low in self-esteem, and rationalize away social inequality. Conservatives are more satisfied with their lives, in general… report better mental health and fewer mental and emotional problems (all after controlling for age, sex, income, and education), and view social justice in ways that are consistent with binding moral foundations, such as by emphasizing personal agency and equity. Liberals have become less happy over the last several decades, but this decline is associated with increasingly secular attitudes and actions.”
There have been a few studies that attempted to rain on conservatives’ happiness parade. In one, scientists proposed that conservatives might simply be more inclined to provide socially desirable answers to surveys than liberals. Society expects you to be happy, and so conservatives say that they are. In another, researchers found that while conservatives certainly report being more happy than liberals, liberals tend to display more signs of happiness, as evidenced by uploading more smiling photographs on Linkedin and posting more positive tweets on Twitter. So maybe conservatives just think they’re happier, or judge happiness differently?
Regardless, the gap remains. So if you need some cheering up, maybe turn to a conservative friend rather than a liberal one.
Reporting from Real Clear Science.