The Happy Liberal

Conservatives are generally more happy than liberals because they are at once more accepting of things as they are and yet more willing to take personal responsibility for their own fate. But are those traits exclusive to conservatives?

That pretty well sums up the research paper, “Conservatives are happier than liberals, but why?” by Barry R. Schlenker and John Chambers, both of the University of Florida, and Bonnie Le of the University of Rochester as reported by Thomas B. Edsall in his weekly New York Times column today. To quote excerpts from their paper:

Conservatives score higher than liberals on personality and attitude measures that are traditionally associated with positive adjustment and mental health, including personal agency, positive outlook, transcendent moral beliefs, and generalized belief in fairness. These constructs, in turn, can account for why conservatives are happier than liberals and have declined less in happiness in recent decades.

Conservatives are more satisfied with their lives, in general and in specific domains (e.g., marriage, job, residence), report better mental health and fewer mental and emotional problems, and view social justice in ways that are consistent with binding moral foundations, such as by emphasizing personal agency and equity.

Conservatives generally score higher on internal control as well as the Protestant Work Ethic, which emphasizes the inherent meaningfulness and value of work and the strong linkage between one’s efforts and outcomes, and is positively associated with achievement. Liberals, on the other hand, are more likely to see outcomes as due to factors beyond one’s personal control, including luck and properties of the social system.

Perceptions of internal control, self-efficacy, and the engagement in meaningful work are strongly related to life satisfaction. These differences in personal agency could, in and of themselves, explain much of the happiness gap.

I added the emphasis above.

In fairness, near the end of his lengthy essay Edsall quotes other researchers who reach opposite conclusions. As is usually the case with Edsall, it’s worth reading the full article.

But the conclusions of Chambers, et. al., make a lot of sense to me. If you go through life thinking that immovable systems will always thwart your efforts, you’re not likely to be very happy about anything.

But that leads me to want to address something that doesn’t show up in Edsall’s piece: what does he mean by “conservative”? I ask the question because it doesn’t strike me that Donald Trump or his followers are happy people. In fact, Trump’s whole brand is built around the idea of being pissed off all the time about everything because it’s all “rigged.”

On the other hand I define myself as a moderate, who would be a liberal in most places in America, and yet I’m also pretty happy with my life, and largely because I believe in the things attributed to “conservatives” in the Chambers study: I accept personal responsibility for the way my life has turned out (including my electoral defeat, the greatest failure and disappointment of my life) and yet I believe that life in general is getting much better, not worse. Along those lines, you might want to check out Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker.

So, I’m not sure it’s correct to assign these attributes to “conservatives.” Rather, I think people of any political ideology can believe in personal responsibility, the value of existing institutions and in a general upward trend in human experience. (Pinker himself is a self-described liberal.)

That’s one of the things we try to get at here at YSDA. I generally agree with liberal policies (Biden’s Build Back Better plans, the Democrats’ voting rights bills, etc.), but I reject liberal attitudes and culture (the obsession with race and gender, for example).

As a rule I don’t like liberal personality traits — self-righteousness, preachiness, humorlessness. And yet, most of my friends are policy liberals who don’t exhibit any of those negative personal stereotypes.

A final observation: Democrats seem headed for an electoral disaster next year because their mostly popular policies are being over-shadowed by their distasteful attitudes. If they could figure out how to combine popular liberal policies with positive “conservative” attitudes they might find the formula for long-term electoral success.

Welcome to the 245th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

3 thoughts on “The Happy Liberal

  1. Sometimes a feeling your efforts control the outcomes makes you happy, but people can find some contentment in the idea they are not responsible If the king allocates wealth to people he likes and he doesn’t like you, you can take comfort that it was out of your hands.

    Regarding Trumpists, I don’t know if they’re really conservative as we knew them decades ago. There’s a conservative element in that they’re generally frustrated with new technology and the new economy. It seems like they, and people on the far left, have a narrative about how their failures are someone else’s fault.


  2. The more one says conservative, the less it seems to mean to me. If Republicans are fiscally conservative then Reagan, W, and Trump aren’t Republican. I think one root of happiness that conservatives have is feeling superior to others. The old Protestant if I have more money, it just goes to show I’m more virtuous, hard working, etc. Feeling superior produces serotonin. People I know who are conservative can’t actually point to anyone in office they agree with. That still leaves the question of who is voting for the right wing lunatic fringe and why? Maybe Dems need to use more marketing approaches to campaigning, like some Republicans do. What are Democratic values and why do they make people happy?


    1. Yep. Democrats have never been much good at selling their ideas, much less their accomplishments. When they passed Obamacare, they just moved on and left the field open to the Republicans to define it. They very successfully tarred it as simply “big government” and “death panels.” The Dems got creamed in the next election, which is the way voters thanked them for a program which they loved piece by piece but which they hated when packaged as “Obamacare.”


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