Are Conservatives Really Happier Than Liberals?

In an op-ed in the New York Times last week, Arthur C. Brooks tried to account for data showing that conservatives tend to be happier than liberals. Brooks began by noting that married, religious people are the happiest among us and that political conservatives are much more likely to be married and religious than are political liberals. By themselves, these correlations imply nothing about the connection between political ideology and happiness. The rational happiness-seeking liberal should react to this news not by switching her party allegiance but by finding a spouse and going to church.

Beyond these associations — strangely, he didn’t mention income, another happiness correlate that conservatives have a lot more of — Brooks discussed (and ultimately dismissed) a reason for conservatives’ relative bliss that is directly linked to their political viewpoints:


An explanation for the happiness gap more congenial to liberals is that conservatives are simply inattentive to the misery of others. If they recognized the injustice in the world, they wouldn’t be so cheerful. In the words of Jaime Napier and John Jost, New York University psychologists, in the journal Psychological Science, “Liberals may be less happy than conservatives because they are less ideologically prepared to rationalize (or explain away) the degree of inequality in society.” The academic parlance for this is “system justification.”

The theory has some intuitive appeal. Conservatives, by definition, are happy overall with the status quo. They want to conserve what is. Liberals on the other hand are agitated, unhappy with the way things are. Even when Democrats are in office, the pervasive inequalities and injustices of society spur them to seek change. Liberals’ ideals are rooted in, as John Rawls put it, the outlines of a “realistic utopia” — an aspirational conception of the polity as imperfect and unfinished. Such an attitude is a recipe for some discontent, just as patients who have some hope of recovery tend to be more miserable than those who have a certain diagnosis of a terrible disease.

This glosses the conservative attitude in a somewhat misleading way. While all conservatives want to “conserve” something, they may be quite agitated if they feel their political society is selling out sterling, time-worn moral values. Think of Edmund Burke, whose rage against the French Revolutionaries, fear for the future of the English monarchy and disdain for the “swinish multitude” were hardly the words of a happy-go-lucky guy. And as Jay Livingston points out, the Fox News crowd has taken a big bliss hit during the Obama years: “extreme conservatives” are now nearly three times more likely than “extreme liberals” to describe themselves as “not too happy” (the bluest choice available on the survey). Brooks, Livingston  observes, was working with pre-2008 data.

But for the sake of argument, let’s pretend there is a real happiness gap associated with political ideology. What should we make of it? Brooks arrives at his main point near the end of his op-ed: Conservatives overwhelmingly think that “hard work and perseverance” will “usually” pay off for individuals, while liberals are more skeptical about this claim. This piece of data might lead one to believe that conservatives are happier because they are ignorant, but according to Brooks conservatives are happier for a very different reason: they value personal freedom and moral responsibility, and find the present system promoting exactly these values. You can’t blame conservatives for sticking their heads in the sand when it comes to social injustice, Brooks argues, because they do not interpret inequality as injustice at all:

Liberals then condemn the happiness of conservatives, because conservatives are relatively untroubled by a problem that, it turns out, their political counterparts defined.

This refutation of the “system justification” may make Brooks, a conservative, happy, but it is built on a giant fallacy. Liberals do not “define” a problem that conservatives are untroubled by. Reality defines the problem. When conservatives invest faith in the American Dream, they subscribe to a myth. The notion that anyone can make it if only they work hard enough is suspect not because liberals don’t believe it but because it is empirically false.

The fact is that Americans enjoy less social mobility than Canadians and most Western Europeans. Poverty in the United States is persistent, putting the brakes on individual attempts to prosper: 42 percent of American men born into the bottom income quintile end up there as adults, while only 8 percent rise to the top 20 percent of earners. Even Paul Ryan agrees that rags-to-riches stories are rare in American democracy.

So if conservatives really are happier than liberals, their bliss seems to stem from a degree of callousness toward their fellow man.

Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

Photo credit: Shutterstock.com

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • Push Past Negative Self-Talk: Give Yourself the Proper Fuel to Attack the World, with David Goggins, Former NAVY SealIf you've ever spent 5 minutes trying to meditate, you know something most people don't realize: that our minds are filled, much of the time, with negative nonsense. Messaging from TV, from the news, from advertising, and from difficult daily interactions pulls us mentally in every direction, insisting that we focus on or worry about this or that. To start from a place of strength and stability, you need to quiet your mind and gain control. For former NAVY Seal David Goggins, this begins with recognizing all the negative self-messaging and committing to quieting the mind. It continues with replacing the negative thoughts with positive ones.

10 new things we’ve learned about death

If you don't want to know anything about your death, consider this your spoiler warning.

Culture & Religion
  • For centuries cultures have personified death to give this terrifying mystery a familiar face.
  • Modern science has demystified death by divulging its biological processes, yet many questions remain.
  • Studying death is not meant to be a morbid reminder of a cruel fate, but a way to improve the lives of the living.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • Master Execution: How to Get from Point A to Point B in 7 Steps, with Rob Roy, Retired Navy SEALUsing the principles of SEAL training to forge better bosses, former Navy SEAL and founder of the Leadership Under Fire series Rob Roy, a self-described "Hammer", makes people's lives miserable in the hopes of teaching them how to be a tougher—and better—manager. "We offer something that you are not going to get from reading a book," says Roy. "Real leaders inspire, guide and give hope."Anybody can make a decision when everything is in their favor, but what happens in turbulent times? Roy teaches leaders, through intense experiences, that they can walk into any situation and come out ahead. In this lesson, he outlines seven SEAL-tested steps for executing any plan—even under extreme conditions or crisis situations.