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.