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
Step inside the unlikely friendship of a former ACLU president and an ultra-conservative Supreme Court Justice.
- Former president of the ACLU Nadine Strossen and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia were unlikely friends. They debated each other at events all over the world, and because of that developed a deep and rewarding friendship – despite their immense differences.
- Scalia, a famous conservative, was invited to circles that were not his "home territory", such as the ACLU, to debate his views. Here, Strossen expresses her gratitude and respect for his commitment to the exchange of ideas.
- "It's really sad that people seem to think that if you disagree with somebody on some issues you can't be mutually respectful, you can't enjoy each other's company, you can't learn from each other and grow in yourself," says Strossen.
- The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Charles Koch Foundation, which encourages the expression of diverse viewpoints within a culture of civil discourse and mutual respect.
Learn how to redesign your job for maximum reward.
- Broaching the question "What is my purpose?" is daunting – it's a grandiose idea, but research can make it a little more approachable if work is where you find your meaning. It turns out you can redesign your job to have maximum purpose.
- There are 3 ways people find meaning at work, what Aaron Hurst calls the three elevations of impact. About a third of the population finds meaning at an individual level, from seeing the direct impact of their work on other people. Another third of people find their purpose at an organizational level. And the last third of people find meaning at a social level.
- "What's interesting about these three elevations of impact is they enable us to find meaning in any job if we approach it the right way. And it shows how accessible purpose can be when we take responsibility for it in our work," says Hurst.
Erik Verlinde has been compared to Einstein for completely rethinking the nature of gravity.
- The Dutch physicist Erik Verlinde's hypothesis describes gravity as an "emergent" force not fundamental.
- The scientist thinks his ideas describe the universe better than existing models, without resorting to "dark matter".
- While some question his previous papers, Verlinde is reworking his ideas as a full-fledged theory.
TuSimple, an autonomous trucking company, has also engaged in test programs with the United States Postal Service and Amazon.
PAUL RATJE / Contributor
- This week, UPS announced that it's working with autonomous trucking startup TuSimple on a pilot project to deliver cargo in Arizona using self-driving trucks.
- UPS has also acquired a minority stake in TuSimple.
- TuSimple hopes its trucks will be fully autonomous — without a human driver — by late 2020, though regulatory questions remain.