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!