Why is the right happier than the left?

So far as I am aware, every survey that asks about political orientation and happiness finds that right-wingers are happier than left-wingers. In the 2007 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes, Liberal identifiers were a massive 13% ahead of Labor identifiers as describing themselves as ‘very happy’, 40%/27%. At his blog, Winton Bates summarises a new article on this subject, by Jaime Napier and John Jost in the June issue of Psychological Science, this way:

The study suggests that some of the association between political orientation and subjective well-being is accounted for by beliefs about inequality. The authors examined the effect of introducing ideological variables – relating to beliefs about inequality and meritocracy- in regression analyses explaining life satisfaction in the U.S. and nine other countries. They found that when the ideological variable was introduced into the analysis it took some of the explanatory power away from the political variable. …

The authors conclude that “inequality takes a greater psychological toll on liberals than on conservatives, apparently because liberals lack ideological rationalizations that would help them frame inequality in a positive (or at least neutral) light”

I don’t doubt that there is a statistical relationship between beliefs about inequality, meritocracy, and getting ahead that helps explain why leftists are not as happy as conservatives and others on the right. Even the new president of the American Enterprise Institute, Arthur Brooks, makes this point in his book Gross National Happiness.

But how likely is that when people are asked how happy they feel, their mind turns to ideological rationalisations of inequality? Why would some local income inequality disturb some respondents so much, and not all the people who are sick in hospital, or dissatisfied with their personal relationships, or any of the other things known to have big negative effects on personal well-being?

I think there is a better theory, one that is more consistent with the subjective well-being literature, which explains this result: that both lower average happiness and leftism have a common link to a weaker sense of personal control and optimism. Both these attributes are strongly correlated with happiness; and one of the tasks of the ‘positive psychology’ movement (the clinical side of subjective well-being research) is to try to enhance these senses.

For example, in the Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2005 those who agreed or strongly agreed that they had a good chance of improving their standard of living were more than twice as likely as those who disagreed or strongly disagreed to rate themselves at 9 or 10 on a 0 to 10 happiness scale. By lesser margins, those who thought that they could get a new job at least as good as their current one, and those who enjoyed having a lot of choices, were significantly happier than those who thought it would be difficult to get a new job or did not enjoy having choices.

When we tabulate these against party ID, Liberal supporters are 10 to 23 percentage points more likely to give answers suggesting that the respondents feel in control and optimistic about the future.

People who don’t feel like they are fully in control of their lives or optimistic about their own prospects are more likely to support left-wing parties, which promise to look after them. But optimistic and in-control people are more likely to want the government to let them get on with their lives without interference, and support right-of-centre parties.

Societal inequalities may play a role in why people feel the way they do, but I would hypothesise that it has more to do with the how the respondent feels that it affects him/her personally than with inequality in general. Americans, for example, tend to be much more optimistic about their prospects than Europeans, even though actual social mobility is similar in both places.

But neither liberals nor conservatives (in the American senses of those words) are likely to directly consider inequality when asked about their personal happiness. Conservatives won’t rationalise it because they won’t think about it; and unless they are highly ideological (such as being a university academic) ‘liberals’ won’t think about it either. But their lack of control and optimism will affect their answer.

41 thoughts on “Why is the right happier than the left?

  1. Andrew, I don’t think the respondents need to consciously consider a factor for it to affect their responses. I read an interesting book about the adaptive unconscious, called Strangers to Ourselves, which postulates that we often do not consciously know why we feel, think or do the things we do, although in those cases we consciously formulate spurious rationalisations to justify them.


  2. Dogs are pretty happy too – give em a bone, some water and chuck em a ball and their life is complete. Conservatives are, by and large, dumb, simple-minded people who don’t think beyond their immediate concrete circumstances. The cave(wo)man who discovered fire was unhappy with the cold and dark. Meanwhile all the conservatives were asking why the sun wasn’t good enough for her/him. A refusal to accept given conditions is the motor force of history, which opens one to more complex, less animal – more uniquely human – pleasures and possibilities. The pursuit of such can often leave you frustrated, irritated and pissed off. Anyway I thought you thought these happiness surveys were bunkum?


  3. James – I agree with that, but it goes to why people intuitively think that this or that political position makes sense, because it broadly accords with the way they experience the world. People on the right are on average better off materially than those on the left, which will give them a sense of control, but there is two-way causation here: those who are happy, optimistic and believe in their capacity to control their circumstances earn higher incomes (except, interestingly, the people who rate themselves as ’10’ on the happiness scales – perhaps they feel there is no need to do any better).

    Jack – I think you have things the wrong way around. It is because conservatives are less likely to show this personal passiveness that they are better off psychologically. At a guess, left-wing activists (as opposed to the mass of people with left-wing views these big surveys pick up) show a happiness profile similar to right-wingers, because though they tend to think that other people are passive victims of social structures, they believe that they personally are capable of changing things. I’ll see if I can find some data later.

    Some of the analysis based on these surveys is bunkum, but the surveys themselves tell us interesting things and pass multiple tests of general reliability: eg how friends and family rate people, brain scans, and similar re-test results.


  4. I think you are spot on, Andrew. In my experience, people who are depressed not only tend to experience a lack of meaning and purpose, but they also often feel like victims of circumstance and unable to change their lives. Merely unhappy people may have these feelings to a less extreme degree and this may lead them to support a political ideology that makes their (and others’) welfare someone else’s responsibility.


  5. My first thought was that a weak sense of personal control is likely to be more of a problem for low-income earners and the non-religious. Beliefs about inequality seem to be shown up as significant even in studies that control for both income levels and church attendance.
    However, I am attracted to James Buchanan’s argument that the strongest motivation for big government these days is that people are afraid to be free (see: http://wintonbates.blogspot.com/2008/07/do-you-want-government-to-give-you.html ) for references. It seems to me that may be just another way of saying that a lot of people lack a sense of personal control.
    It is possible that beliefs about inequality and a sense of lack of personal control could both be relevant in explaining why those who self-identify as left are less happy. Arthur Brooks seems to combine both factors (see GNH pp 30-33). It would be interesting to see research which seeks to identify their relative importance.


  6. Andrew, I think it’s likely that people who feel they don’t have a reasonable degree of control over their lives will be unhappy. But I’m unsure about those questions and answers you cite (about job prospects etc).

    People who don’t have very much control over their economic prospects will often find it elsewhere – in their gardens, with their appearance etc. Conversely there are people with excellent prospects but for one reason of another, like relationships, are trapped in an unhappy personal situation.

    I suppose there’re lots of factors in being unhappy, but a simple one might be inevitable comparisons between what you have and what others (in reality, as well as in advertisements, movies) have. We still do have an idea that what a person is worth is measured in what they have. Poorer people know they have less, that their kids go to inferior schools etc.


  7. Interesting data.

    The answer lies in the considerable similarities between Leftists and organised religion. Leftist theology is overwhelmingly lifted from Judeo-Xian theology.
    While both look forward to a better world, the religious have a few thousand years of thinking about this better world – Heaven, Paradise, etc. – while Leftists have never really turned a trick that didn’t result in massive pain and death.

    Leftist theology’s utopian eschatalogy leads to anxiety as it cannot provide the comfort of Heaven, Paradise, or the presence of grace, a guiding spirit, etc.

    Leftist theology cannot provide certainty of the next – better – world or firm reasons for living now that organised deist religion can; it’s all about the furture. OTOH, for secular liberals and conservatives, you’re a long time dead, and life is not a dress rehearsal.


  8. I have a personal experience that might be relevant here.

    I’m an American living in Melbourne (visiting the US at the moment). Years ago while still in the USA, during Clinton’s presidency, I experienced a clinical depression. At the lowest point of my depression Bill Clinton gave a State of the Union address…

    Contrary to Jack’s characterization of conservatives, I have always been one to dig down to fundamentals and to look ahead to long-term consequences, to strive to grasp the biggest picture I can while keeping that picture connected to real people and real life. I find this to also be so of those friends of mine who share my political and economic views, and who are likely to be characterized as “conservative”.

    But things were different when the clinical depression came along. I found that I could not concentrate and could not organize my mind. My vast network of integrated information and understanding came unstuck, and I couldn’t think clearly anymore, which is enough to make anyone unhappy. But part of depression is that one can’t feel happy because the brain chemistry won’t allow positive feelings, just as it won’t allow mental integration, concentration, and other crucial mental abilities to function well.

    And as I listened to Bill Clinton give his State of the Union address while I was suffering this mental condition, for the first time I thought he sounded reasonable and right. But I knew that that wasn’t how I normally responded to Clinton’s way of coming at social problems. I just couldn’t pull together the reasons that I had objected before to Clinton’s politics.

    It so happened a close friend of mine, a psychiatrist by profession, phoned me during the speech and I told her of my peculiar attraction to what Clinton had been saying – although I had some trouble remembering exactly what he’d said. And my friend told me that I shouldn’t worry about this change in myself. It was a symptom of my depression, of my temporary inability to integrate my mental material. But, she said, when I got well, all the connections my brain had made throughout my life would still be there, and I’d once again be able access them and to see long-range and in 3 dimensions, instead of being taken in by warm fuzzies that address only emotional needs.

    “Right now, you are going on your feelings, because that’s all you have to guide you while your concentration and integration capacities are out of commission. But it will all come back to you when you’re well again.”

    My friend reminded me of some of my former views and the reasoning I had applied to derive those views, which were familiar to me and made sense. Yes, I remembered as she reminded me. But she warned me that in my depressed condition, in about 15 minutes or so, I would once again be struggling to pull it all together again, and would again have trouble seeing what was wrong with Clinton’s approach.

    And the doctor was right on all counts.

    I tended toward “liberal” (American term) views when I was mentally ill, and hence unhappy. If someone had asked me on a survey how unhappy I was, I would have chosen the very worst degree of unhappiness possible.

    I do not mean to say that everyone who tends toward American liberalism is depressed or unhappy – I know that many liberals are neither. And I have liberal friends who are certainly not stupid or lacking in a willingness to look to the long-range (although I don’t have any liberal friends who know much about economics, but they believe a lot of economic fallacies, so their idea of long-range wisdom is different from mine). But it may be that when people are suffering from depression they, like me, find that liberal solutions seem to make sense, because their deeper understanding of how reality works has been disrupted by a disintgrated mind. Hence, when you survey unhappy people, many of whom are unhappy because they are mentally unwell, they will express liberal views because such views require less complex integration to hold onto, and appeal to emotions.

    Just a different angle from personal experience.


  9. Now that Alison has opened the door for introspection, this leftie is as happy as a pig in sh*t. [Are you happy, now, moderator?]

    Sure, the future looks brighter because the nation’s politics have changed, but who is in government didn’t and doesn’t affect me much anyway. And I’m certainly not going to let my happiness get decided by what some f*ckwit like John Howard is up to, or Kevin Rudd for that matter.

    I’m happy that John Greenfield exists. With the free amusement that he provides, who wouldn’t be happy?

    And I’m really happy that there is a classical liberal in Carlton. I’m sure the Carlton Crew of Underbelly fame are happy about that too.


  10. Spiros – Though I theorised at comment 3 that the more active lefties would have happiness profiles more similar to the right than the lumpenleft. The lumpenleft want the nanny state to look after them, the activist left wants to be nanny – a much more in-control and optimistic scenario (for them).

    On a quick look for stats yesterday I could not find a survey with enough people indicating left views, political activity and happiness status to test my idea properly.


  11. I thought righties were very unhappy that we are going to be taken over by Islamists, coz they breed faster than us and we don’t have the moral fibre to stand up to them, etc, etc, etc, etc.

    It was the Right big idea de jour until very recently and it made them very grumpy.


  12. Spiros – An interesting counter-theory, that active right-wingers will be less happy than the lumpenright, with the latter happily getting on with their lives while the former worry about social decline.


  13. American right wing activists have been fretting about social decline for ages. The exemplar is Robert Bork, as set out in his book Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline. We tend to not see so much of that here. Apart from Santamaria, we’ve haven’t seen any of it. Peter Coleman dabbles occasionally, but that’s about it. Climate change and the responses to it may provide an interesting opportunity for activists on both sides to be unhappy, for different reasons of course.


  14. Robert Bork is no longer considered in the mainstream right and certainly wasn’t when he wrote Gomorrah.

    The problem with these studies is that both left and right are diverse. For instance you won’t find much of the ‘we’re going to hell in a handbasket’ critique of modern society among libertarians but rather the opposite – think of Julian Simon and Virginia Postrel. In fact think of the sorts of conservatives that libertarians like to cite (no matter how impure) like Reagan ‘it’s morning in America’. There is a difference between the sunny kind of California-midwest conservatism/libertarianism and the gloomy puss sort you find in Bork, Buchanan and whingers like these. My guess is the happiness of the right may be capturing both the sunny-side up libertarians and the Ned Flanders type conservatives who feel happy because of religion and family but are otherwise not particularly political.


  15. Doom-and-gloomism is in fact the centre piece of mainstream modern right wingery. If it’s not the fifth column force of Islam who will tear us down (Melanie Phillips, Mark Steyn), it’s the welfare state (Alexander Dalrymple) creating lax moral standards, a yob culture, yada yada yada.

    The US is a little different because they have neither the Muslims or a welfare state. But Libertarians aren’t the mainstream of the US right. Their presence in the Republic Party is confined to insignificant mavericks like Ron Paul.


  16. I was referring to libertarians more broadly as in libertarian leaning conservatives, conservative libertarians, etc not current or former members of the nutter Libertarian party like Ron Paul.

    This would include the Reason and Cato crowd (which the Ron Paulians accuse of being impure), Reagan and Goldwater conservatives, people like Gary Johnson who was the Governor of New Mexico and self identified as a libertarian, even the Newt Gingrich types. They tend by and large to be optimistic about the future, pro-technology, pro-immigration and pro-trade. Given that the US features largely in most of these politics and happiness polls, I don’t think you can ignore the US. Two of the three people you named are British, the other one is actually a Canadian who used to specialise in writing about Broadway tunes and all 3 are one-note right wingers who are only identified as right wing because of their obsessions with Islam, the welfare state and manners but don’t seem to have any other right wing credentials beyond that.


  17. “Doom-and-gloomism is in fact the centre piece of mainstream modern right wingery.”

    But if so, the Australian right is an exception. Indeed, as I have said before Australian conservatives barely deserve the name by international standards. Perhaps they think the left has cornered the market in apocalyptic visions (climate change) and moral decay (‘corporate pedophilia’).


  18. “the Australian right is an exception”

    No it isn’t. All we ever get is how the greenies/feminists/indigenous activists/teachers’ unions/bleeding hearts/imported imams/miscellaneous traitors are going to ruin the nation. It’s been that way, in one form or another, since the end of WW1.

    This is because the Australian right is defined simply by being the anti-left. It doesn’t stand for anything.

    Santamaria stood for something. He wanted a nation of peasants who did what they were told by their local priest. It’s been down hill for the Right, ideas-wise, ever since.


  19. It’s been down hill for the Right, ideas-wise, ever since.

    Spiros must think Clive Hamilton optimizes healthy, optimistic thinking on the left. LOL Spiros someone coined the term sad lefties to describe a very, sad unhappy lot.

    Most things Rudd has done could be seen to be about fear and concern.

    ETS, petrol watch, labor reform rollback, lollywater taxes.

    Me thinks you’re looking in the mirror and projecting.


  20. This is quite an interesting discussion. I would group hard right-wingers like Pat Buchanan and Bork with the left in certain respects. Like the left they exude pessimism. I think Spiros isn’t articulating his real feelings in a certain way. Sure he may be very happy that Howard is no longer PM and happier still once Bush leaves office (so will I) but it’s not optimism. Happiness is not necessarily optimism. In fact I would argue that Rudd’s run for the top spot was the most pessimistic I have ever witnessed. I think the previous government got caught up in that and lost. They weren’t optimistic enough or knew how to sell it.

    Even Obama’s run is a drive for office based on pessimism. In fact the left’s entire raison d’être is a pessimistic ideology: fear of markets, fear of the employer, fear of banks, fear of the gas station owner. It’s the principle reason I find leftism so repellent in lots of way. It’s actually a very sad ideology especially when most can’t conceive anything other than a static economic pie.

    The only successful left leaning pol I found able to cloak the pessimistic ideology was Bill Clinton. Almost every other left leaning candidate essentially sells pessimistic agendas. Al Gore was the worst offender. He was quite possibly the worst presidential candidate in generations and the tight election in 00 doesn’t begin to explain just how bad he was. He we were coming through the big boom and the idiot was selling pessimism. I kid you not.

    I can’t think of one optimistic policy Rudd has sold to the electorate.

    I wouldn’t group the Hawke government with the pessimistic set though.


  21. I might add a counter argument that it’s often not a person’s political persuasion that influences their capacity for happiness but the reverse.

    Biologically, each person’s brain is capable of producing a set amount of endorphines (the goo that our brains produce to trigger happiness), which gets released to the brain in spurts according to personal circumstances. Some people are simply born as happier people and will enjoy whatever life throws at or hands to them. Others will be miserable no matter how successful they are. (You see the latter really bite people when they become “successful” but are no happier for it; it can really screw them up. Just ask Rene Rivkin or any number of pop stars and Hollywood celebrities.)

    People who go through times of unhappiness often gain an empathy to others who may go through rough times. Empathy leads to leftwing politics. Unhappiness can also lead to sadism and blame, which you often find on the Right; expressed as hatred toward minorities, etc.

    Most people tend to fall in a middle range where they’re generally satisfied with their lot (or are a bit happier or unhappier) which they’ll blame on or chalk up to their life choices. For these people, their family, friends and education background play a stronger role in deciding their political orientation — which often isn’t really strong in them anyway. These you might think of as the voters who look at politics like they do their footy teams.


  22. “I might add a counter argument that it’s often not a person’s political persuasion that influences their capacity for happiness but the reverse.”

    Pete – I thought that was the argument I was making! That generally left-wing ideology is not a causal factor, but various personality/attitidunal factors lead to both unhappiness and leftism. Though I suspect for the fairly small number of people who do immerse themselves in leftist literature it may confirm their pessimism.

    I also agree that sociological factors are very important in political orientation, but this not inconsistent with the psychological theory, given some inherited component of personality and the attitudes about the world learnt from family and peers.


  23. JC, you must have been living under a rock these past few years. Your side of the politics has talked about little else but fear of Muslims the inexorable threat they bring to Western society.


  24. Pete and Andrew: You appear to be arguing that leftism is a genetic trait.
    If so, how do you explain the difference in political orientation between people drawn from the same gene pool e.g. between the U.S. and Europe? How do you explain differences in political orientation between people in different professions?


  25. JC, you must have been living under a rock these past few years. Your side of the politics has talked about little else but fear of Muslims the inexorable threat they bring to Western society.

    yes, that was one fear. What other enduring “fears” did you see from the Liberals that remained part of the long terms policy mix under Howard?

    Compare that to Rudd’s election strategy. Rudd ran on fear and won. I thought the “funniest” one was running on fear of gas station owners.

    Spiros, I know it’s hard for you to accept but leftism is a very sad, sad ideology. It ‘s why Kleenex has such roaring success.


  26. “What other enduring “fears” did you see from the Liberals that remained part of the long terms policy mix under Howard?”

    Fear of trade unions.


  27. Winton – Genetic factors influence personality, which in turn influences how people see the world, but that still leaves scope for huge variation. There is an optimistic culture in the US that probably stems from its immigrant background and strong 20th century, without the catastrophic wars of Europe.

    But around the world I would predict that people with a strong sense of control would be over-represented among supporters of the the relevant party, in relative terms (eg the US Democrats would be a party of the right in European terms).

    But I very much doubt there is a ‘liberal’, ‘conservative’ or ‘socialist’ gene.


  28. Fear of trade unions.

    nonsense. Examples like the wharf unions had to be broken and their strong arm tactics rubbed out.

    Don’t confuse fear of unions with the fear of laws favoring unions. there is a huge difference which most reasonable people recognize.


  29. Howard wanted to engineer social change via economic change and used fear to stymie moves for progressive change when it came even from his own colleagues. We had to stop lesbians from being able to adopt babies, keep a close eye on the Maoists in the state schools, fight the good war on drugs and terror …..


  30. Apart from leaving the Maoists alone in the state schools, what’s changed under Rudd in terms of the other issues you raised, Russell? Not that i know, but I haven’t read evidence that ice and coke has become cheaper on the street while Mary and Bethany or Tom and Bruce still can’t adopt.


  31. “What would you say is the difference between a ‘fear’ and a ‘problem’?”

    Fear is an emotion. Problems are solved by rational thought.

    “John Stone, Fred Nile, I think Pauline H, and….??”

    Andrew, If I could be could be bothered, I would go through the contents and authors of Quadrant since September 2001. Why don’t you do it? If it turns out I’m wrong, I will acknowledge that I am wrong.


  32. “I thought that was the argument I was making! That generally left-wing ideology is not a causal factor, but various personality/attitidunal factors lead to both unhappiness and leftism.”

    John Ray sourced and/or conducted a lot of studies on the psychological characteristics of leftists. This never struck me as very interesting because I thought we are in a contest of ideas and not personality types.

    One of these decades Spiros will discover classical liberalism which will be a terrible shock because he will realise how much rubbish he talked about the right all those years ago.


  33. “classical liberalism”

    You could fit all the classical liberals in Australia in a Toyota Land Cruiser, with room to spare for their dog eared collector’s editions of John Stuart Mill.


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