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Why Is This Man Glowering When He Should Be Smiling? Conservatives, Liberals, and the Happiness Gap

- July 2, 2008


In a 2005 Pew Research Center survey, 47% of self-described conservative Republicans said they were “very happy,” a mood that only 28% of liberal Democrats shared. Pondering these results, conservative columnist George Will concluded that “liberalism is a complicated and exacting, not to say grim and scolding, creed. And not one conducive to happiness.”

If we take this liberal-conservative happiness gap as a given, then a question naturally arises: Why? Why isn’t liberalism as conducive to happiness as conservatism is?

First, though, should we take the gap as a given? In a recent study, NYU psychologists Jaime Napier and John Jost (drawing on data from the World Values Survey) replicate the Pew Center survey’s result. In the U.S., they report, “right-wing orientation” was indeed predictive of one’s sense of personal well-being (a compound of satisfaction with one’s own life and self-rated happiness). Even after statistical controls for the standard demographics (income, education, age, sex, marital status, employment status, and church attendance) were instituted, right-wingers scored higher on the subjective well-being scale. So the gap couldn’t be written off as an artifact of demographic differences between right- and left-wingers.

So again, why?

Napier and Jost couched their answer in terms of “system-justification theory”:

bq. Research shows that political conservatism is a system-justifying ideology in that it is associated with the endorsement of a fairly wide range of rationalizations of current social, economic, and political institutions and arrangements. Previous work reveals that the endorsement of system-justifying beliefs is generally associated with high personal satisfaction, as well as increased positive affect and decreased negative affect; this is referred to as the palliative function of system-justifying ideology.

Is system-justifying ideology the missing link? In the U.S., when endorsement of meritocratic beliefs (on a scale ranging from “Hard work doesn’t generally bring success – it’s more a matter of luck” to “In the long run, hard work usually brings a better life”) was added to the explanatory model, the direct effect of right-wing orientation waned; follow-up analysis revealed that right-wing orientation was predictive of endorsement of meritocratic beliefs, which in run predicted subjective well-being. The same result held in a ten-nation analysis that brought country-level variables (GDP and unemployment and inflation rates) into play.

In another part of the study, Napier and Jost used three decades of General Social Survey data to explore these relationships over time in the U.S. As economic inequality grew, they found, subjective well-being declined. However, this effect held only for liberals, not for conservatives. A different way of saying the same thing would be that the liberal-conservative gap became significant only at higher levels of economic inequality.

Napier and Jost conclude as follows:

bq. …our research suggests that inequality takes a greater psychological toll on liberals than on conservatives, apparently because liberals lack ideological rationalizations that would help them frame inequality in a positive (or at least neutral) light.

For a full report of this study, see:

Napier, Jaime L., and John T. Jost. 2008. Why are conservatives happier than liberals? Psychological Science 19, 6 (June): 565-572.