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Why are conservatives happier than liberals?

Posted Sep 26 2008 5:16pm

First off, I typically don’t blog on political topics, having been taught as a child that there are three topics that you don’t discuss with people you don’t know well: politics, religion, and money. That being said, this is a big election year, so it just seems negligent to avoid the topic altogether.

Over the past few years, more psychologists have turned their attention to questions about why we hold the political attitudes we do. In a recent entry, Jaime Napier and John Jost published a series of experiments that conclude that conservatives are happier than liberals, not just in the United States, but in nine other nations as well [1].

The Conservative Brain?

The Conservative Brain?

The difference in happiness remains after controlling for demographic variables. The authors argue that the main variable accounting for this discrepancy is that conservatives are less bothered by the inequality they see around them than liberals. As financial inequality grew from 1974 to 2004, so did the “happiness gap.” The authors argue that conservatives’ ability to rationalize the status quo as “fair” protects them from the unhappiness experienced by the liberals.

Somehow, this paper just doesn’t seem connected to the work on happiness by Ed Diener (who is quite liberal and an apparently very happy man) and others in the positive psychology field. You can take a version of Diener’s happiness measure here. This literature focuses on social relationships, quality of work, progress towards goals, spirituality, and self esteem. Nowhere in my reading do I see “how do I feel about the social inequality around me” as a major variable in personal happiness.

So why do I think conservatives are happier than liberals? Perhaps one clue comes from Jack and Jeanne Block (2006), who looked at characteristics of their preschoolers who later affiliated with either conservatism or liberalism [2]. If you can read past the obvious disgust with which the Blocks hold conservatives (an all-too-common and unfortunate trend in the psychological literature on politicial orientation), an interesting difference in self-control emerges. As preschoolers, the future conservatives tilt towards “over-control,” while the future liberals tilt towards “under-control.” Both extremes have their own sets of drawbacks, but the worst outcome you get from “over-control” is being rather bland and boring. In contrast, people who are “under-controlled” are going to be at risk for a number of self-destructive behavior patterns that are not exactly conducive to happiness.

1.  Napier, J.L., & Jost, J.T. (2008).  Why are conservatives happier than liberals? Psychological Science, 19 (6), 565-572.

2.  Block, J., & Block, J.H. (2006). Nursery school personality and political orientation two decades later. Journal of Research in Personality, 40 (5), 734-749.

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