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Who’s happier? Liberals or conservatives?

In two of several new studies, researchers analyzed the language and the smiles (in official photographs) of members of Congress.

Sen. Harry Reid and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell
REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Past research has suggested that people who are politically conservative tend to be happier than those who are politically liberal.

But is that true?

Not according to a new study — or, rather, series of studies — published late last week in the journal Science. In that study, researchers from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) found that when you actually analyze people’s behavior — particularly their facial expressions and their speech patterns — liberals may be slightly happier than conservatives.

Those past studies that gave the happiness edge to conservatives relied on people self-reporting their happiness, a measurement tool that is highly unreliable when used on its own.

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“If you want to know how happy someone is, one way to do it is to just ask them, and this logic has been relied upon heavily in research on subjective wellbeing,” said study co-author and UCI psychologist Peter Ditto in a released statement. “But another way to think about it is that happy is as happy does, and looking at happiness-related behavior avoids the issue of someone striving to present him- or herself as a happy person.” 

Analyzing Congress

In one of the studies described in the new paper, Ditto and his colleagues examined happiness-related behavior among “the United States’ most salient liberal and conservatives: members of the U.S. Congress.”

First, they analyzed the language used by Republicans and Democrats as recorded in the 2013 Congressional Record. They found that the greater the political conservatism among members, the less likely they were to use emotionally positive words.

When they expanded their analysis to 18 years of Congressional Record transcripts (more than 430 million words), the researchers made a related finding: Democrats were significantly more likely than their Republican peers to use emotionally positive rather than negative words.

The UCI researchers then analyzed the smiles displayed in the official photos of members of the 113th U.S. Congress. They used a widely accepted method of coding the smiles as either genuine (involving muscles around the eyes as well as those that lift the corners of the mouth) or deceptive (involving only the muscles at the corners of the mouth).

“We observed only marginally significant differences in the intensity of smiling behavior in the muscles lifting the corners of the mouth,” write the researchers, “but conservatism predicted significantly less intense facial action in the muscles around the eyes that indicate genuine happiness.”

Additional studies

The photo study was repeated using 457 publically available photographs of people on LinkedIn — 240 employees of four organizations strongly perceived as having a liberal ideology (the Democratic National Committee, Planned Parenthood, the New York Times and MSNBC) and 217 employees of companies strongly associated with a conservative ideology (the Republican National Committee, the Family Research Council, the Wall Street Journal and the Fox News Channel).

The analysis revealed, according to the UCI researchers, that “employees at organizations promoting liberal values smiled more intensely and genuinely than their conservative counterparts,” although only marginally more so.

In yet another study, the researchers analyzed the linguistic content of more than 47,000 Twitter messages sent by almost 2,000 people who “follow” the Democratic Party through that social media venue and another 2,000 people who “follow” the Republican Party.

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The Twitter users who subscribed to the Republican Party’s updates were “significantly less likely to contain positive emotion words, joviality words, and happy emoticons, and significantly more likely to contain negative emotions words,” write the researchers.

A possible explanation

So what might explain the so-called happiness gap between liberals and conservatives observed in all that earlier research?

A fourth study conducted by Ditto and his colleagues suggests an answer. The researchers compared self-reports of happiness and political ideology of more than 1,400 visitors to Your with those same people’s responses to a survey that is used to measure a psychological phenomenon known as self-enhancement, which leads individuals to report on their lives in unrealistically positive terms. 

Self-enhancement, the UCI researchers point out, “is more pronounced among individualistic cultures, religious people, and competitive, hierarchically oriented groups.”

Their analysis in this study found that self-enhancing is also higher among political conservatives than among political liberals. 

“It is possible,” the researchers explain,” that ideological happiness differences [between liberals and conservatives] may simply be an example of conservatives’ strong tendency to evaluate the self favorably.”

A recommendation for caution

Before any liberal readers get too smug about these findings, be aware that almost all of us engage in some level of self-enhancement. And that kind of personal self-deception sometimes can be useful, according to study co-author and UCI doctoral student Sean Wojcik.

 “There’s research saying that self-enhancement is related to improved social relations, productive and creative work and other beneficial outcomes,” he points out in the released statement.

But the new study’s findings do offer a warning to people of all political persuasions.

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“The questions raised by this research are important because of a growing interest in using self-report measures of happiness to inform public policy,” the UCI researchers conclude in their paper. “Our research supports those recommending caution about promoting any particular ideology or policy as a road to happiness.”

The study was published in the March 13 issue of Science, but, unfortunately, it’s behind a paywall.