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Why Are Conservatives Happier Than Liberals?

December 9, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
How do feelings about ideology and economic inequality affect a person's happiness? As part of his reporting of Making Sen$e of financial news, economics correspondent Paul Solman explores the connection and asks some liberals at Occupy DC and conservatives at the American Enterprise Institute to grade their own happiness.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, how do your feelings about economic inequality impact your sense of happiness?

NewsHour economics correspondent Paul Solman finds out.

It’s part of his regular reporting on Making Sense of financial news.

PAUL SOLMAN: How happy are you, scale of one to four, one not at all happy, four very happy?

LORI SANDERS, American Enterprise Institute: I’m a four.

PAUL SOLMAN: A four?

LORI SANDERS: I’m very happy.

PAUL SOLMAN: Lori Sanders works at the conservative Washington think tank the American Enterprise Institute. A few blocks away, Occupy D.C.er Eric is on the more liberal end of the spectrum.

What number would you give yourself?

MAN: A one.

PAUL SOLMAN: Are you unhappy, do you think, because of the inequality, economic inequality in this country?

MAN: Well, yes.

PAUL SOLMAN: Study after study, it turns out, finds conservatives happier than liberals.

Yale social psychologist Jaime Napier has a theory as to why.

JAIME NAPIER, Yale University: Economic inequality really does affect people’s subjective well-being.

PAUL SOLMAN: Napier’s work has convinced her conservatives are happier than liberals because they think there’s equality of opportunity in America.

JAIME NAPIER: One of the biggest correlates with happiness in our surveys was the belief of a meritocracy, which is the belief that anybody who works hard can make it. That was the biggest predictor of happiness. That was also one of the biggest predictors of political ideology. So, the conservatives were much higher on these meritocratic beliefs than liberals were.

PAUL SOLMAN: Liberals like the folks we found at Occupy D.C., who don’t think the opportunities out there are equal these days. Their message is clear: The system is not fair.

WOMAN: Everybody here at this Occupy movement is here because they have had enough. So, they’re angry. And chances are, you know, people here are very unhappy with the way that our society works.

WOMAN: I believe that things should be equal, or people should have more of an opportunity to become closer to the 1 percent, because, right now, it’s like the 1 percent is the 1 percent, the 99 is the 99, and we kind of don’t stand a chance.

PAUL SOLMAN: The conservative AEI staffers, on the other hand, think we do.

How many of you, on average, think Americans get what they deserve they deserve economically?

Reza Jan, who grew up in Pakistan, believe in Horatio Algerism for all, sort of.

REZA JAN, American Enterprise Institute: I would say not everybody is able to pull off those kinds of success stories. But, in this country, more than any other, for the work you do, you are able to better yourself.

PAUL SOLMAN: That’s true no matter who you are, said Jesse Blumenthal.

JESSE BLUMENTHAL, American Enterprise Institute: The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” notion works here more than really anywhere else in the world.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, optimism alone doesn’t determine contentment. Religion boosts happiness. So does marriage. But Napier’s research accounted for that.

JAIME NAPIER: We adjusted for education, for income, for marital status, religion, people who lived urban vs. rural, all kinds of things. So, you know, on average, just your ideology alone is an independent predictor of your subjective well-being.

ARTHUR BROOKS, American Enterprise Institute: It is true that conservatives tend to be less concerned about income inequality.

Arthur Brooks, president of the AEI, and the author of “Gross National Happiness,” agrees with Napier about the conservative happiness edge.

ARTHUR BROOKS: Conservatives think that fairness is one in which outcomes are based on merit and people start with more or less equal opportunities, or at least we’re working for equal opportunities. If you believe those things, and you see that some person makes more than others or the top 1 percent is breaking away than the bottom 99 percent, that’s not going to affect your happiness very much at all.

PAUL SOLMAN: But with the average wage flatlined and more than 28 million Americans still jobless or underemployed, do merit and hard work really drive success these days?

The late comedian George Carlin’s viral video answer has become a liberal credo.

GEORGE CARLIN, comedian: The owners of this country know the truth. It’s called the American dream, because you have to be asleep to believe it.

(LAUGHTER)

PAUL SOLMAN: Napier says American economic malaise of the past few decades disheartened everyone, but liberals most of all.

JAIME NAPIER: So, everybody was decreasing in happiness as there was more inequality, but liberals to a significantly greater extent than conservatives.

And, in 1974, the difference between liberals and conservatives on happiness wasn’t statistically significant. It was, basically, ideology didn’t predict happiness in 1974.

PAUL SOLMAN: And, today, it does?

JAIME NAPIER: And, today, it definitely does.

PAUL SOLMAN: How much happier are conservatives than liberals, on average?

JAIME NAPIER: It’s about a half-a-point on a 1-4 scale.

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, it’s not as if liberals are clinically depressed. Indeed, besides unhappy Eric, the liberals at Occupy D.C., a protest movement, after all, were a reasonably cheery lot.

How happy are you on a scale of one to four, one not at all happy, four very happy?

CRAIG HUDSON, Occupy D.C.: I would probably have to say three.

ALAN BALL, Occupy D.C.: I would say definitely three-plus.

PAUL SOLMAN: And there were even a few fours.

Ellie (ph), who declined to give her last name, rated herself a two-and-a-half on the happiness scale.

Is the economic inequality and growing economic inequality in this country something that has personally, emotionally disturbed you?

WOMAN: Absolutely, no questions.

PAUL SOLMAN: Alan Ball’s three-plus came despite his concerns about inequality.

ALAN BALL: The reconciliation of inequality is very difficult to do, especially with the system that we have right now. But I have tried to get beyond that, because I don’t want external things to affect my well-being. There’s a temple of love right over there that we’re going to put an altar in, and we’re going to set up a sacred space where people can go in to have peace, to meditate.

PAUL SOLMAN: A temple a tad less inviting than the American Enterprise Institute, where, if not ecstatic, neither was any one of them below a three.

STUART JAMES, American Enterprise Institute: I’m about three-and-a-half, I would say.

REZA JAN: I would probably call it somewhere around a three-and-a-half.

JESSE BLUMENTHAL: It’s probably somewhere between a three-and-a-half and a four.

PAUL SOLMAN: Alex Della Rocchetta, a three-and-a-half, Lori Sanders, you may remember, a full four.

OK, a ludicrously small sample, but, on average, our conservatives scored about half-a-point happier on the 1-4 scale than the liberals at Occupy D.C. And that’s the very same half-point advantage found in the studies Jaime Napier cites.

No surprise to Occupier Craig Hudson.

CRAIG HUDSON: It’s pretty obvious that conservatives represent the interests of the rich, I mean, for the most part. So, people with money generally are happier and generally like to say, well, I got to where I am because I worked hard or parents, whatever, and anybody else, well, they must not have worked hard enough.

STUART JAMES: If everyone was a conservative, we’d all be a lot happier, I guess, right?

PAUL SOLMAN: Probably, but not, says Arthur Brooks, because they are wealthier.

ARTHUR BROOKS: It’s not true that conservatives are richer than Liberals. Liberals are actually richer than conservatives.

The reason that conservatives tend to be less concerned with income inequality is not because that they’re ignorant. It’s not because they’re calloused. It’s not because they have less of a sense of a morality. It has to do with the fact that they see the world differently.

PAUL SOLMAN: See it as a world of just desserts.

AEI staffer Stuart James:

STUART JAMES: I hate the idea of sitting around waiting for someone else to come and, you know, sweep you off your feet and save you from student loan debt or an underwater mortgage or whatever it is. You get what you put into something. If you’re going to sit around and wait for someone to do it for you, you’re going to be miserable, because it ain’t going to happen.

PAUL SOLMAN: Folks at AEI think their vision of hard work and just desserts would, if applied, make everyone better off and even more equal.

LORI SANDERS: The inequalities do make me unhappy. I just think that I can contribute to making that better.

PAUL SOLMAN: Meanwhile, back among the so-called 99 percent, the hope is that a radical change movement will finally address the inequities of our era. And how does that make them feel?

CRAIG HUDSON: I am much happier here than I have ever been in Washington, D.C.

WOMAN: When you do band together and create something, it’s very exciting and a very pleasurable experience.

PAUL SOLMAN: Thinking you’re doing something about economic inequality, in other words, seems to make everyone happier, at least for the moment.