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Who’s happier? Liberals or conservatives?

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

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.

“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.

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 Morals.org 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.

“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.

Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by jason myron on 03/16/2015 - 01:08 pm.

    Nearly every conservative I’ve ever met

    are humorless, bitter ideologues who have virtually no interests other than trying not to pay any taxes and listening to rightie talk radio. They hate change, women, young people and anyone else that doesn’t fit into their narrow, antiquated world view.

    • Submitted by Steve Rose on 03/17/2015 - 09:46 am.

      I saw that on a bumper sticker too.

      I think that liberals are happier due to their fondness for choices. They like the idea of choosing to have sex while choosing not to use contraception, followed by choosing to kill the resultant baby. The babies are denied choices.

      But then again, as consumers, choices can be bad. I am not sure what restaurants can currently serve in New York, but I know that laws have been brought forward and some passed prohibiting 20 ounce sodas, trans fat, and salt. School lunches are definitely not the place for choice. Unfortunately, many of these lunches pass from the kitchen to the waste stream without passing through the middle man. Consumers do not need to make their own health choices; those will be made for them.

  2. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 03/16/2015 - 01:14 pm.

    Neither…

    Senators McConnel or Reid look very happy in that picture. I don’t think one link happiness or unhappiness to political persuasion. That being said, the most miserable people I know are also the most liberal.

    • Submitted by Lyn Crosby on 03/16/2015 - 08:00 pm.

      On the other hand….

      ….in my experience, the most miserable people I know are conservatives frustrated when they cannot control other people’s lives!

  3. Submitted by Eric Paul Jacobsen on 03/16/2015 - 10:00 pm.

    One can spin this research in more than one way.

    As a nearly life-long lefty, I must say that I have always found much greater satisfaction in the notion that lefties are LESS happy than righties. This seemed to me to indicate that we lefties look more clearly than righties at grim reality and that we set aside our rose-colored lenses.

    So I am a little disappointed to discover that righties, when their nonverbal expressions and word choice are observed carefully, seem to be less happy than lefties. The finding that righties self-enhance themselves into believing that they are happy makes me feel almost jealous. Following my own logic, it would seem that not only do righties look more seriously at grim reality – which would account for their grumpiness – but they are also capable of accepting this grim reality with positive self-talk that is so effective that righties not only believe they are happy, but also can often persuade a majority of voters that they are a positive alternative to the left.

    On the other hand, I find this whole line of research, regardless of its conclusions, to miss the whole point of political ideology. We do not choose a philosophy of public policy in order to make OURSELVES happy, nor should we. The question is whether the policies we espouse actually make most OTHER PEOPLE happy, and whether this happiness will be stable and enduring. If your political ideology gives you tremendous personal satisfaction, but your public policies, when implemented, make most other people unhappy, then I think you need a better political ideology.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/17/2015 - 09:34 am.

      Disappointment

      I agree that one’s political ideology is to advocate for a world where OTHER PEOPLE are happy.

      Those of us on the Right want everyone to be FREE! … free of an intrusive government that tries to regulate your life, free to spend your wages as you see fit, free to speak your mind without being shouted down by thought police, and free to worship your god in the public square as you see fit.

      What disappoints conservatives is the realization that NOT EVERYONE WANTS to be free. That there are people who are organized and actively fight to INCREASE government taxation and regulation over their lives.

      Conservatives sometimes feel like an army of liberators who have torn down the prison gates only to be told by the inmates that they’d rather stay. George Bush’s biggest mistake was in believing that the Iraqi people wanted to be free of totalitarianism, for example. He knows that now.

      So the disappointment comes from the realization that what was thought to be a universal yearning, to be free men, isn’t universal after all. This realization also explains the perceived grumpiness in conservatives as some have observed.

      • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 03/21/2015 - 06:08 pm.

        1/2 Empty or 1/2 full?

        Your perspective is the glass is 1/2 empty and those “lefties” are making it less full, in short you are not thankful for what you do have, and less happy because you think or feel folks are stealing your so called freedom (not sure what that means). On the other hand I am very happy for what I have “Glass 1/2 full” and think that the righties steal my freedom in exchange for money, vs lefties give me more freedom in exchange for money. So, my significant right wing brother calls me a social liberal, fiscal libertarian, is it the libertarian or social liberal that makes me happy?

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 03/17/2015 - 09:34 am.

      Satisfaction

      I think you’re equating happiness with satisfaction. While the two might be related, they’re not entirely interchangeable. While, in general, liberals might not be less happy, they might still be less satisfied with the status quo.

      Another possibility is that, when liberals appear happy, they might not be faking it. This suggests that they’re more likely to be honest about their feelings and views. So, while liberals have a tendency to self report less happiness, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they ARE less happy. It might just be closer to the truth.

  4. Submitted by beryl john-knudson on 03/17/2015 - 11:07 am.

    Right, left, right left… happy who?

    If happiness is the preferred evaluation of good and evil and political choice, then this nation is in big trouble.

    There is an out-of-print book…”The Cultural Roots of National Socialism” by Hermann Glaser who writes of the Spiesser mentality, Germany mid thirties, where one could say a romantic escapism made the people fee like happiness was a warm puppy, whatever…and a goal to achieve to content oneself that all one’s leaders were warm puppies too?

    Entertaining ourselves with such a simplistic study; way to go, wow?

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