A Philosopher's Blog

Happiness & Politics

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 7, 2008

Happiness is a matter of great concern to most people, hence it is hardly surprising that the Pew Research Center conducted an extensive study of the matter in 2006.

The study had some obvious results, such as the fact that rich people claim to be happier than poor people. There were also some surprising results, such as the fact that more conservatives claim to be happy than do liberals.

In the case of conservatives versus liberals, 47% of conservatives claimed to be very happy while only 28% of liberals did so. This fact has been used by some to argue that liberalism is an unhappy world view and thus people should avoid it in favor of conservatism. This, naturally enough, raises the question of why more American conservatives report being happy than American liberals.

One possibility is that it is the nature of liberal ideology to create more unhappiness in people. For example, while the phrase “liberal guilt” is commonly used, one almost never hears the phrase “conservative guilt” (although one does often hear of conservatives being guilty). Perhaps this indicates that liberal ideology leads people to be unhappy.

Another possible factor is that the people who are conservative tend to be married, older, and more religious than liberals. In many cases they are also more wealthy than liberals. Marriage, age, religion and wealth are all factors that are connected with people claiming to be happy. So, it might not be the political ideology that causes the disparity in happiness but rather the other qualities. It should, of course, also be considered that the ideology has a causal role in these other factors as well. A person who is conservative might be more inclined to get married and be religious because s/he is conservative. Alternatively, a person might be more inclined to be conservative because of those factors. And, of course, there might be a two way causal connection. For example, a person might be inclined towards being conservative because she is religious and then find that her religious views get reinforced by her political views.

Another possible factor is that how a person views the world affects his or hear happiness. On this view, it is not the ideology itself that causes happiness or unhappiness, but rather how that ideology affects how one sees the world. Alternatively, it might be that how one sees the world and how one feels about it defines one’s ideology. Or, as discussed above, there can be feedback between the ideology and the feelings.

To be a bit more specific in this matter, liberals tend to feel bad about such things as inequality and social injustice. Conservatives tend to feel less bad about such things. Since there is so much injustice and inequality in the world, it makes sense that those who feel worse about such things would be less happy than those who care less about them. To use an analogy, if I care about Nancy and Tom does not, then if something bad happens to Nancy, I will be rather unhappy while Tom will not be so unhappy.

This hypothesis is born out by how liberals and conservatives tend to view the world. For example, take unemployment. In general, a liberal will tend to see unemployment as the result of poor government policies, corporate downsizing and so forth. In short, a liberal will tend to see unemployment as something inflicted on people. Hence, they will tend to have sympathy and feel badly about rising unemployment. In general, a conservative will tend to see unemployment as the result of bad decision making, laziness or other such factors. In short, a conservative will tend to see unemployment as something self-inflicted and hence they will tend to have less sympathy.

It is tempting to say that liberals are less happy because they care more about other people and, to use Clinton’s phrase, “feel their pain.” It is also tempting to say that conservatives are more happy because they care less and hence that their happiness rests, in part, on indifference to the suffering of others. This is, of course, a possibility.

It is also tempting to say that liberal are less happy because they are weak and unrealistic. This makes them feel badly about things needlessly and thus they are foolishly hurting themselves by being the way they area. In contrast, the conservatives can be seen as smarter-they focus on themselves and do not worry so much about others. Hence, they are happier (or at least say they are).

One final matter to consider is the fact that the survey is base on what people claim. Obviously, there is no machine that measures happiness. Further, the nature of happiness is a matter of considerable philosophical debate. People who say they are happy most likely have no true conception of happiness and are perhaps merely expressing satisfaction or a lack of discontent.

Perhaps liberals say they are less happy because they think that is what they should say. After all, how can someone be happy in a world that has so much inequality and injustice? Perhaps more conservatives say they are very happy because they mistake material success with happiness. They think they are doing well, so they think they are happy. Or perhaps they think they should be happy, so they say they are.

Happiness is, after all, a tricky thing.

2 Responses

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  1. Joan said, on April 9, 2011 at 11:13 pm

    Maybe conservatives are more inclined to say they are happy because they are expected to while liberals has higher expectations out of life and the world therefore they are less likely to say they are happy?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on April 11, 2011 at 2:15 pm

      That is a possibility. It could also be argued that liberals tend to be more concerned about others outside of their own groups and that this causes less happiness.


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