Are Liberals or Conservatives Happier?

I’ve now read the first chapter of Gross National Happiness by Arthur C. Brooks, which says that the data shows that conservatives are generally happier than liberals. Before I evaluate this, let me emphasize what it is not saying. It is not saying that every conservative is happier than every liberal, nor is it saying that conservatives are more right than liberals. It is only saying that statistically speaking the average conservative is happier than the average liberal. Brooks proposes some reasons for this. First, conservatives are more religious and more likely to be married, which he also maintains contribute to happiness. I can understand how these factors contribute to happiness, because religious people have more social connections through church and frequently believe in a loving God who will grant them immortality after death and fix things for them in this life, and married people have more intimacy and sex. But even accounting for these differences, he says that conservatives are still happier than liberals. He accounts for this by saying that conservatives care more for the individual, and liberals care more for the collective. I hadn’t thought of this before, but there may be something to it. I haven’t paid much attention to conservative rhetoric, but I have read a lot of Ayn Rand, and I know that she strongly advocates individualism while abhorring collectivism. One thought of Brooks is that conservatives, as individualists, put more of a premium on happiness than liberals, as collectivists do. But I don’t think this explains all the rest of the difference. An even more basic reason why conservatives may be happier is that true conservatism is the desire to keep things as they are, and people who want to keep things the way they are are usually happier with how things are. In contrast, liberals tend to want to change things. They are more likely to see things that need fixing and want to do something about fixing them. This may often involve some kind of collective action, but I think that the aspect most affecting happiness is the focus on what is wrong rather than a focus on what is right. Liberals are more likely to focus on what is wrong, while conservatives are more likely to focus on what is right. This is not to say that conservatives are more right. That would be the fallacy of equivocation. It is just to say that conservatives are more focused on what they are happy with, and this focus will tend to make them happier. Liberals are more focused on what they are unhappy with, and this focus will tend to make them unhappier.

Brooks also notes that political extremists, whether liberal or conservative, tend to be happier than moderates, though they may make the people around them unhappier. What may account for this is that political extremists are actively fighting for a cause they believe in, and they feel they are doing something to make a difference, taking control of things rather than sitting back and letting circumstances control them. Control is another important factor in happiness. People who feel in control of their lives are going to feel happier than people who don’t feel in control.

The issue of whether conservatives or liberals are right is a different one. I think there are many things right with our society and other things that need changing. This society is neither a utopia nor a dystopia. I tend to favor individualism myself, but I also appreciate movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Reason Rally. I didn’t get involved with these myself, because I was busy with my own life and am not of such an activist bent, but they were addressing real problems with society, and I hope they make a difference.

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