We’re mad about happiness.
A seemingly endless tide of books and videos, blogs and classes overflow with advice on where to find happiness and how to achieve it. The tide leaves us in its wake, more anxious and worried than ever, wondering what is wrong with us whenever we’re not happy.
The Declaration of Independence guarantees the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and Americans pursue the last one with the greatest vigor.
Right behind them, in close pursuit, come social scientists and psychologists trying to figure out who’s happiest and why.
Their research consistently finds more happy conservatives than liberals.
The cultural stereotype of a political conservative is hardly the image of a happy-go-lucky, bubbly, fun-loving individual. And yet, conservatives consistently admit to greater levels of personal happiness than liberals. It’s not that liberals are morose and conservatives euphoric, but there is a constant happiness gap between the two groups. It’s as if the avuncular Ronald Reagan of “morning in America” is the conservative emoticon, while liberals are stuck in a rut with Jimmy “malaise speech” Carter.
Why are conservatives happier than liberals? Some of the difference may simply be a result of demographics. Conservatives tend to be older than liberals, and people report greater happiness as they age. Conservatives are also more likely to be married and to practice a religion – both of which are also associated with greater happiness.
The differences can be quite striking, as Arthur C. Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute pointed out in a New York Times article on the subject: Fifty-two percent of married, religious, politically conservative people (with kids) are very happy — while only 14 percent of single, secular, liberal people without kids are.
But the interaction of politics with happiness is more complex than mere demographics.
International studies find that people who live in countries with liberal governments are, on average, happier than those who live in countries with conservative governments.
However, in America, conservatives are happier than liberals. In the struggle to explain the happiness gap, some point to conservatives’ relatively greater willingness to accept imperfection and the status quo. They find contentment in their acceptance of reality as it is.
Additionally, conservatives believe there is equality of opportunity in America, and even when there isn’t, they believe that hard work and perseverance can overcome disadvantages. In contrast, liberals experience “divine discontent” with reality. They are dissatisfied with imperfection and want the world to be a better place. Liberals are also more likely to see people as victims of circumstances who need help to overcome those circumstances.
Psychologists have long noticed the many advantages of believing in personal autonomy. People who believe they are the masters of their fate feel better about themselves than people who attribute their success or failure to outside influences.
Differences in worldview may indeed lead to differences in happiness levels, but our excessive national concern with happiness may be counterproductive. Is happiness really the ultimate measure of a life – or a nation? Many of history’s greatest philosophers thought otherwise. Politics aside, as a society we need to think more deeply into our singular obsession with happiness. There are other values, other goals and other pursuits that also matter.
We would do well to heed the warning of the 20th century thinker and therapist Viktor E. Frankl, who observed, “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.”