By Brad Wilcox, Hal Boyd and Wendy Wang [November 25, 2021]
For many of us, the holidays offer a time of reflection. We look back at the year that’s passed and ahead to the year to come. Some ask a simple question: Am I happy?
That appears to be a more difficult question for liberals than for conservatives. It’s a puzzling but well-established finding: Conservatives are more likely than liberals to report they are happy.
But why are conservatives more likely to say they’re happier? And how can liberals live happier lives?
Some scholars believe that the happiness gap between conservatives and liberals is driven by differences in how liberals and conservatives think about politics and inequality. For example, John Jost and Jaime Napier, two psychologists at New York University, have written that “the rationalization of inequality — a core component of conservative ideology — helps to explain why conservatives are, on average, happier than liberals.” In other words, happiness is a function of legitimating the world as it is. Conservatives are happy because they’re fine with the status quo; liberals are unhappy because they’re not.
The general hypothesis presented by Mr. Jost and Ms. Napier carries enormous intuitive appeal. If your politics are about social justice, change and progress, then it stands to reason that you might feel unhappy with life as it is.
But for liberals who want progress and personal happiness, thankfully this isn’t the only explanation. In our research and in that of others, another theory has emerged: Human connection lends meaning, direction and a sense of solidarity to our lives. In short, it helps make us happier.
Arthur Brooks of Harvard, for example, told us: “A lot of our happiness is out of our control, based on genetics and circumstances. But some of it we can control. It requires we invest in four things each day.” Those four things, he said, are “faith, family, friends and work in which we earn our success and serve others.”
The liberal-conservative happiness gap, then, may not be primarily about political ideology but rather connections to our country’s three core institutions. Self-identified liberals are less likely than conservatives, on average, to be tied to family, faith and community.
Our research supports that view. In a recent YouGov survey for the Institute for Family Studies and the Wheatley Institution, we found a 14-percentage-point difference between liberals and conservatives age 18 to 55 in the share who are married. A minority (41 percent) of liberals are married versus a majority (55 percent) of conservatives. And there’s a full 26-point difference in religious attendance between these two groups: 18 percent of liberals said they could be found in a church, temple, synagogue or mosque at least once a month, compared with 44 percent of conservatives.
This view garners further support from the research on happiness. A Pew Research study, for instance, ties the Republican attainment of happiness advantage over Democrats in part to more marriage, greater family satisfaction and higher levels of religious attendance.
In a separate study of the conservative-liberal happiness gap, the psychologists Barry R. Schlenker, John Chambers and Bonnie Le explore liberal disengagement from family and faith. They note, “Liberals have become less happy over the last several decades, but this decline is associated with increasingly secular attitudes and actions (e.g., less religiosity, less likelihood of being married, and perhaps lessened belief in personal agency).”
In our survey, we found a modest gap between conservatives and liberals age 18 to 55 in being “very happy” — with 22 percent of conservatives reporting they are “very happy” compared with 17 percent of liberals (conservatives are also a bit more likely to say they are “pretty happy”). This gap is not explained by socioeconomic differences in income, race, age and gender between the two groups. But once we control for marriage, parenthood, family satisfaction, religious attendance and community satisfaction, the ideological gap in happiness disappears.
On Thanksgiving, a holiday so many of us spend with our loved ones, we emphasize that of all these social factors, the biggest factor predicting overall happiness is satisfaction with family life. Certainly this doesn’t determine the direction of causation, but the findings advance the case that support and social connections — particularly at home — are important for happiness.
As part of our research, we spoke to a number of Americans about family. The case of Katie, a 38-year-old Virginia married mother of two, illustrates the point. This right-leaning woman has noticed a difference between her life before and after she married and had children. Although she has less time for herself, she much prefers her new status as a married mother. She’s less lonely and finds more “purpose and meaning in the mundane day-to-day life, as well as exciting times when my kids hit certain milestones.”
She reported a “fuller happiness now” as a wife and mother, in part because it is shared with her husband, children and extended family members — as well as friends who are also raising families with whom, she said, she often has “a common ground to talk about.”
The connection between social ties and happiness also applies to those on the left. Julie, a 46-year-old, self-described progressive mother of four in Salt Lake City, has been married for more than two decades and is engaged in community volunteering; she’s also active in her local church. She works full time and balances a dizzying array of responsibilities. It’s her home life, however, where she finds “the greatest joys” and “the greatest struggles.” But each commitment, she said, “brings an opportunity to connect with people around me.”
Her experience dovetails with the patterns in our survey. Liberal women who are married, parents, religiously active and happy with their family and community are all significantly more likely than other liberal women to report they are “very happy.” The same goes for men.
There are, of course, many other factors that influence reported levels of happiness in America. Poverty, exercise and what Mr. Brooks calls “earned success,” by which he means productive work, are just a few examples. But we have not seen any evidence that liberals work or exercise less, and our own analyses do not indicate that socioeconomic factors account for the ideological happiness gap.
Liberals seeking to improve their own lives might look to social institutions as resources that can help lift life satisfaction. This would be a challenge, given that support for marriage and faith has dropped more in recent years among liberals than conservatives, and secularization has been concentrated among more left-leaning Americans. In other words, the very institutions that might improve liberals’ happiness are increasingly viewed negatively by liberals.
Aristotle understood we are social animals. When liberals throw themselves into social institutions — from family to faith to local civic organizations — they have just as great a shot at happiness as people on the right. That doesn’t mean liberals will throw themselves into these institutions in the same way that conservatives do. And they don’t need to.
But they cannot lose sight of this paradox: Individual happiness is more likely to be found not by directly pursuing it but by embracing social institutions that call on us to focus first on the welfare of others.
Brad Wilcox (@BradWilcoxIFS) is director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and a senior fellow of the Institute for Family Studies. Hal Boyd (@halrobertboyd) is the executive editor of Deseret News National and a fellow at the Wheatley Institution. Wendy Wang (@WendyRWang) is research director at the Institute for Family Studies.