Are liberals happier than conservatives? It depends.

Political psychology is a relatively new subfield in political science. This being the case, it’s easy to publish a quick paper by taking something that regular, non-political psychology (or biology) figured out a long time ago, re-run their experiments controlling for ideology and find that — surprise! — liberals and conservatives are different.

The papers are useful in that the findings are out there to be reported, and someone has to write them, but readers often see them as somewhat obvious. Anecdotally, and to the extent it’s been documented, we already know that people with different ideological orientations are, well, different. On a macro level, liberals and conservatives pursue different careers, like different foods and even have different senses of humor.

As I’ve written before, these differences are to be expected. Human beings evolved to be pattern-seeking adapters to their environment, and that reliance on long-term adaptation made it advantageous for the species to disagree about and experiment with truth claims about how best to live together — what to eat, who makes the rules, how are rules enforced and so on. This isn’t to say that one ideology is better than the other — it’s a convenient shorthand to even say that ideology breaks down on a one-dimensional liberal/conservative scale. Rather, this is to say that our differences are, on a macro level, exist because they have contributed to our long-term viability as a species.

But what do we do when two of these studies yield opposite answers?

To the extent that it’s been documented, self-identified political conservatives consistently self-report higher levels of happiness than self-identified liberals. In other words, if you take 100 Republicans and 100 Democrats and ask them all if they consider themselves “happy,” you’ll regularly get more of the Republicans to say yes.

However, a paper published in the March 13th issue of Science found that, while conservatives report higher levels of happiness, liberals exhibit higher levels of happiness. Rather than simply asking participants how they felt and taking them at their word, researchers measured how liberals and conservatives actually behaved.

Good news for us liberals, right? Well, maybe. There are reasons to believe that all of this research is a little bit right and a little bit wrong.

First, here’s the logic behind why conservatives may have the upper hand in the happiness gap:

Closure and Neuroticism

The psychological case for conservatives being happier than liberals hinges on differences in their personality. Liberals are, on average, more neurotic than conservatives, leading to the suggestion that they are less happy not because they are worried about themselves, per se, but rather because they worry more in general. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there are a lot of things to worry about. It isn’t hard to connect the dots from liberals’ propensity to worry in general and, say, their concern for social justice.

And to the extent that liberals are sad because they worry, conservatives are thought to be happy because they don’t, or do for a shorter amount of time before moving on. Self-described conservatives exhibit a greater need for cognitive closure than liberals, leading them to make decisions more quickly and, perhaps, spend less time and energy worrying about themselves and others. This is backed up by findings in research spanning nine countries showing that conservatives were more likely to justify the political systems in which they lived and dismiss their problems, which contributed to their happiness. In the words of those researchers, conservatism effectively acted as an “emotional buffer” against the political, social and economic inequality liberals often obsess over.

Cognitive closure is also tied to religious faith, which requires a suspension of disbelief. Religiosity, which provides both answers to life’s great questions and communities that affirm them, has been found to be a leading indicator of happiness.

So there’s at least a plausible case to be made that conservatives, by nature of the psychological traits that correlate with conservatism, really are happier than liberals. But there’s a problem:

Self-reporting has issues

Any survey you conduct is only as valid as the questions you ask and the people who answer. When breaking a survey down along ideological lines, this presents problems in measurement. Conservatives are more likely than liberals to self-enhance — they have been found to rate themselves higher on positive psychological traits across the board. With respect to the happiness gap, almost all of the difference in self-reported happiness can be explained by this self-enhancement.

Happiness, via Shutterstock

Happiness, via Shutterstock

There are a number of reasons why this could be the case that don’t paint conservatives as being blissfully ignorant. Given that liberals and conservatives sense and perceive the world in fundamentally different ways, it’s not only plausible but likely that they will interpret the same questions regarding their personal happiness differently. A liberal and a conservative in the same “true emotional state” could reasonably differ on, say, the threshold one has to cross before being able to honestly re-categorize oneself from “unhappy” to “happy.” This could contribute to the self-enhancement found in happiness surveys, amplifying (or creating out of thin air) observed differences between the groups.

So while self-reported findings can’t be totally discounted — after all, it’s usually not a good idea to tell your survey participants that they’re wrong — they do need to be interpreted with the understanding that different participants are interacting with the same survey questions in different ways. There could even be different definitions of what it means to be happy that break down along ideological lines as a result of the factors mentioned above.

Measuring behavior

The Science paper from March attempted to get around the problematic reliance on self-reported data by measuring participants’ actual behavior, and in doing so came up with the opposite result. Facial recognition techniques found that liberals used their “smile muscles” more than conservatives, indicating more “genuinely happiness.” This would seem to swing the needle back in favor of liberals in terms of who’s got the long end of the stick when it comes to the happiness gap, but there are problems with this study, as well.

One of the experiments in the study analyzed users on Twitter, taking a large sample of users and scanning their tweets for positive or negative language. Researchers found that users who followed more Democrats were more likely to tweet positive messages, while users who followed Republicans were more negative. As they described to FiveThirtyEight:

In study three, we did a linguistic analysis of Twitter status updates, and we identified close to 4,000 participants. We found that tweets by people who followed the Democratic party had more positive and less negative emotional content than tweets by people who followed the Republican party.

This was taken as evidence that liberals could be inherently happier than conservatives. After all, they were exhibiting happier behavior. However, when using partisan metrics to define ideological identity and examine behavior, it’s almost impossible to get a valid sample after only one trial. Unless you replicate the experiment across a number of years, you’re sure to run up against an unavoidable and massive interaction variable: The President.

People with partisan loyalties are affected by changes in the political climate. Multiple studies have found that, controlling for personal income, people’s perceptions of the economy are far better when their party is in power. The effects are significant to the point at which Democrats will spend more money when the President is a Democrat, and save more when the President is a Republican, and vice versa for Republican citizens.

So should we really be all that surprised that liberals are tweeting happier tweets in 2015? With President Obama in the White House, conservatives have something do be down and angry about. If the same experiment had been conducted in 2004 (impossible given that Twitter wasn’t founded until 2006, but still), it could have easily produced the opposite results.

Taking these studies together, all signs point to the classic academic conclusion: there might be something to this, but we need more data. That different methodologies produce different results shows that happiness may not break down by ideology at all in the first place. Alternatively, it may be safer to say that liberals and conservatives are differently happy, as opposed to one being happier than the other.

After all, that would be closer in line with the rest of what we know about our ideological differences in the first place.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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8 Responses to “Are liberals happier than conservatives? It depends.”

  1. The_Fixer says:

    I don’t know if we’ll ever answer the question definitively. That being said, I know how I’d answer the question.

    Different people have a different metric for what makes them happy. They perceive how far along on their personal happiness scale differently. And yes, some people do lie to themselves.

    My own observation is that liberal people are happier. Yes, we may have our moments of despair, but we come out of those moments because we are more resilient, adaptable. Adaptable and resilient are not two terms that can be often be used to describe conservatives.

    I’ve also noticed that conservatives don’t do humor all that well. Those that consider themselves humorists or comedians aren’t really all that funny. Most rely on cheap, old formulaic jokes and when they get “cutting edge”, it’s usually pretty mean-spirited.

    Comedians who formerly were liberal (or at least leaned that way) become unfunny when they become conservative and write their own material that is true to their philosophy. Think people like Dennis Miller and P.J. O’Rourke. They come off as arrogant assholes in their attempts to be humorous.

    Until some truly definitive study comes along and says the opposite, I’ll go on thinking that liberals are happier, because it’s been my experience.

  2. 2karmanot says:

    Liberals live, conservatives exist

  3. mirth says:

    It’s funny that song played in my head when I read this post. I was thinking about the conservative’s hearts being made of stone and the softer liberal hearts being much more vulnerable to the sorrows of the world, which might suggest that we are the lesser happy overall.

  4. 2karmanot says:

    Some of us are sculptors :-)

  5. lynchie says:

    Yes liberals tend to get on with things. conservatives yearn for some supposed golden age, Regan, the 50’s, America superpower, etc. conservatives show little signs of being able to accept change. They don’t do technology well, science, immigration, you name it. I am surrounded by conservatives in Western Pa. and they piss and moan about an age which never was. They want the days when the Cleavers were alive and Ward ruled the house, June dressed with pearls cooking in the kitchen and because it never was they are constantly bitching about everything. I also think they are the most Uncurious (word ?) lot, no interest in the unknown.

  6. ComradeRutherford says:

    I am much, much happier than *every* Conservatives I have ever interacted with. They are mostly in a state of hatred and criticism and jump to the worst assumptions.

  7. mirth says:

    Hearts made of stone will never break.

  8. Indigo says:

    That said, liberals tend to go ahead and live their lives, in my experience, while conservatives are busily cursing whatever doesn’t go their way. That’s a huge personality difference, not really covered by the experiments you reported but readily observable, at least among people I know.

    And then there’s this old joke from the 1930s Republicans (yes, I’m almost that old): Moses told the people to saddle their asses and load up their camels, they’re headed for the Promised land. FDR told the people to sit down on their asses and light up a Camel, this is the Promised Land.

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