Thursday, October 21, 2021

The Happiness Gap

This could be the most unkindest cut of all, to coin a phrase. While you were worrying about thigh gaps, a happiness gap has opened up. Some researchers report that conservatives are on the whole happier than liberals. Others have disputed these conclusions and have declared that liberals are just as happy as conservatives.

Thomas Edsall reports fairly on both sides of the issue, as well he should. Unfortunately, the distinction between conservative and liberal does not quite do justice to today’s political spectrum. Some conservatives seem to be more radical than conservative; they want to rip things up, not to conserve them. And some liberals and progressives are clearly members of the radical left, the socialist and even the Marxist left.

Jaime Napier and John Jost suggest that conservatives are more content with things as they are while liberals are more dissatisfied with the current state of things. Those who accept inequality are happier than those who take offense at it, and who complain about it:

Using nationally representative samples from the United States and nine other countries, Napier and Jost note that they consistently found conservatives (or right-wingers) are happier than liberals (or left-wingers). This ideological gap in happiness is not accounted for by demographic differences or by differences in cognitive style. We did find, however, that the rationalization of inequality — a core component of conservative ideology — helps to explain why conservatives are, on average, happier than liberals.

Napier and Jost contend that their determinations are “consistent with system justification theory, which posits that viewing the status quo (with its attendant degree of inequality) as fair and legitimate serves a palliative function.”

Another group of researchers see things slightly differently.

A very different view of conservatives and the political right emerges in Schlenker, Chambers and Le’s 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.

In contrast to Napier and Jost’s “view that conservatives are generally fearful, low in self-esteem, and rationalize away social inequality,” Schlenker, Chambers and Le argue:

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.

Liberals, Schlenker and his co-authors agree,

have become less happy over the last several decades, but this decline is associated with increasingly secular attitudes and actions (e.g., less religiosity, less likelihood of being married, and perhaps lessened belief in personal agency).

Conservatives tend to have a better grounding in work, in the value of their contributions to the society at large. Liberals and progressives and radical leftists tend to see themselves more as isolated individuals, raging against the machine or chronically discontented with the way things are.

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.

These differences have consequences:

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.

So too, in their view, does the liberal inclination to view morality in relative, as opposed to absolutist, terms, have consequences:

A relativist moral code more readily permits people to excuse or justify failures to do the ‘‘right’’ thing. When moral codes lack clarity and promote flexibility, people may come to feel a sense of normlessness — a lack of purpose in life — and alienation. 

Further, if people believe there are acceptable excuses and justifications for morally questionable acts, they are more likely to engage in those acts, which in turn can create problems and unhappiness.

In more banal terms, conservatives are more likely to play by the rules and to accept the outcomes. Liberals or leftists are more likely to protest outcomes that do not conform to their ideology. It is worth mentioning that such an attitude, as prevalent as it is on the left, does not merit the name of liberal.

Edsall continues:

Liberals define fairness more in terms of equality (equal outcomes regardless of contributions) and turn to government as the vehicle for enforcing social justice and helping those in need. Conservatives define fairness more in terms of equity (outcomes should be proportional to contributions), rely on free markets to distribute outcomes, and prefer individuals and private organizations, not government, to contribute to the care and protection of those in need.

Liberals see their work as having a more charitable purpose, while conservatives tend to accept the verdict of the marketplace. Moreover, conservatives tend to value community ties over individual self-actualization, and thus are less likely to suffer from anomie:

Newman argued that since “family ties and a strong sense of community and connectedness are key ingredients for a meaningful life,” it is possible that “if liberal agendas and ideologies inhibit social bonds and connections, it could lower people’s sense of meaning and purpose.”

Needless to say, these results have been questioned. One group of researchers suggests that it’s all about the style of self-reporting. This means that conservatives tend to say they are happier, even when they are not.

Based on that research, Wojcik, Ditto and four colleagues argue in “Conservatives Report, but Liberals Display, Greater Happiness” that “research suggesting that political conservatives are happier than political liberals is fully mediated by conservatives’ self-enhancing style of self-report.”

Using what they call “behavioral measures,” the authors found that relative to conservatives, liberals more frequently used positive emotional language in their speech and smiled more intensely and genuinely in photographs. Our results were consistent across large samples of online survey takers, U.S. politicians, Twitter users, and Linked-In users.

It’s all about the smiley face. What is positive emotional language? Perhaps it means that liberals have been taught to use positive emotional language, regardless of their happiness quotient.

Edsall closes with a Princeton professor who claims that liberalism makes people happier. It's always good to have a contrary opinion:

In “Why Liberalism Works,” Paul Starr, a professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton, puts the case for contemporary liberalism this way (and I am going to give him the last word):

Historically, liberalism has been defined by a shared, albeit evolving, body of political principles rather than by agreement on the ultimate grounds on which those principles rest. One of those shared political principles is an equal right to freedom, where freedom has been successively understood during the past three centuries in a more expansive way: first, as a right to civil liberty and freedom from arbitrary power; then, as a right to political liberty and a share in the government; and finally, as a right to basic requirements of human development and security necessary to assure equal opportunity and personal dignity.

Shared principles suggests groupthink and ideological conformity. One wonders why and how this makes anyone more happy.

Of course, we are happy to see both sides of the issue. But, the researchers might also have asked whether liberals or conservatives take more psychoactive medication. Are American college students, who tend to lean left, more or less likely to take medication for anxiety or depression? Do the inhabitants of America’s blue cities tend to take more of such medications? And then, there is the matter of self-medication. Do red state or blue state inhabitants tend to take more opioids and narcotics?


Sam L. said...

One wonders why so many "liberals" are so angry... My guess is "inadequate to no sense of humor".

Ares Olympus said...

I recall reading somewhere liberals were more neurotic, or maybe that also is related to a gender divide as well, seeing it has something to do with a feeling of personal agency. The less agency you feel, the more likely you will project negative characteristics to others, and use them to carry your negative emotions, where you can't do anything about them, except try to control other people.

I've had a friend tell me liberal and conservative are now meaningless terms, that is he calls himself a "classical liberal", while it is now the "liberals" who are against free speech and freedom in general. He says we should say Left and Right, originating from the French revolution.

Or I recall libertarians keep the "Political compass" with liberty away from both Left and Right, and give an orthogonal axis between Libertarianism and Authoritarianism, and see generally the closer people get to power, the more they turn to authoritarian perspectives.

And agreed, it would be informative to find out who is taking the most psychoactive medication, and who self-medicates more and how.

Sam L. said...

"And some liberals and progressives are clearly members of the radical left, the socialist and even the Marxist left." As I keep saying, "progressive" always reminds me of CANCER, which killed my wife. Your mileage may differ.