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Why conservatives are happier

Chicago TeParty Patriots supporters rally Daley PlazApril 16.  |  Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

Chicago Tea Party Patriots supporters rally at Daley Plaza on April 16. | Al Podgorski~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 18, 2012 6:13AM

Conservatives, across countries, tend to be plain happier people than liberals are. That’s good news for the right, and seriously bad news for the left.

And the “happiness gap,” study after study shows, is no small matter.

In a 2006 Pew Survey, for instance, 47 percent of conservative Republicans said they were “very happy,” compared with just 28 percent of liberal Democrats. Furthermore, the Pew Survey found that this result could not simply be attributed to the seemingly obvious cause: differences in income levels between the left and the right. Rather, for every income group, conservative Republicans were happier than Democrats.

The fascinating question is why.

Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, suggests that conservatives’ greater sense of personal happiness may be due to factors like marriage and religious faith. In other words, married and religious people tend to be happier, and conservatives are more likely to be both. That seems to make a lot of sense . . . or does it?

In truth, there is every reason to suspect that there may be something deeper, inherent to political conservatives, that makes them more likely to be married, religious, happy and a great deal of other things besides.

What might it be? Well, let’s start with the body of well-documented personality differences between liberals and conservatives. Using the well-established “Big Five” personality scale, conservatives and liberals differ on at least three out of five major personality traits that have implications for their personal happiness.

First, conservatives tend to be less neurotic — or, more emotionally stable — than liberals. Liberals don’t just worry about the poor, and the rights of those different from themselves — it appears that they worry more, period, than conservatives do.

Conservatives also tend to be more extroverted. That means they probably make more friends and feel more comfortable in groups and communities. They’re more sociable. Once again, this probably helps confer a subjective sense of greater happiness.

But perhaps most significant, personality research shows that conservatives tend to be less open and exploratory people than liberals are. Indeed, based on a large body of research by University of Maryland social psychologist Arie Kruglanski, conservatives tend to have a higher “need for cognitive closure,” meaning that they are uncomfortable with ambiguity and prefer to hold fixed beliefs and views. And if you think being more closed-minded makes you less happy . . . well, think again.

The need for closure is often interpreted very negatively — understandably so. But if it has an upside, it may well be the peace of mind it confers. Conservatives tend to be more assured in their views and confident in them; thus, they have less need to agonizingly question them. They know their place in the world and aren’t troubled over it.

“It’s kind of a peaceful bliss,” explains Kruglanski.

Furthermore, this need for certainty may underlie much else about the right, such as the fact they are generally more religious.

“Religion or any comprehensive belief system is one that provides you answers to everything — and therefore belief and happiness,” Kruglanski explains.

Finally, there is the argument that the tendency by conservatives to rationalize unequal social systems — to overlook how the other half is forced to live, either through simple dismissiveness, or affirmation of the fairness of free markets and meritocracies — also makes them happier.

The world is hard and cruel and perhaps, as predominantly liberal atheists suspect, ultimately meaningless. In this context, it appears, political conservatism is doing much more than political liberalism to get people through the day.

Chris Mooney is the author of four books, including The Republican War on Science.


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