Why Republicans Are Happier, Part IV

One of my most popular posts, from February 2008—the source of my first Instalanche!—argued that conservatives are happier than liberals, and gave some reasons why. I followed that up here, and then here, where I pointed out that conservatives are not only happier but also nicer and more loving than liberals. Conservatives hug their children more, derive more pleasure from the happiness of others, and are more willing to sacrifice their interests for the sake of others. They volunteer more, give more to charity, and are less concerned with money than liberals are.

Finally, four-and-a-half years later, the news has reached the New York Times:

Scholars on both the left and right have studied this question extensively, and have reached a consensus that it is conservatives who possess the happiness edge. Many data sets show this. For example, the Pew Research Center in 2006 reported that conservative Republicans were 68 percent more likely than liberal Democrats to say they were “very happy” about their lives. This pattern has persisted for decades. The question isn’t whether this is true, but why.

Many conservatives favor an explanation focusing on lifestyle differences, such as marriage and faith. They note that most conservatives are married; most liberals are not. (The percentages are 53 percent to 33 percent, according to my calculations using data from the 2004 General Social Survey, and almost none of the gap is due to the fact that liberals tend to be younger than conservatives.) Marriage and happiness go together. If two people are demographically the same but one is married and the other is not, the married person will be 18 percentage points more likely to say he or she is very happy than the unmarried person.

The story on religion is much the same. According to the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, conservatives who practice a faith outnumber religious liberals in America nearly four to one. And the link to happiness? You guessed it. Religious participants are nearly twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives as are secularists (43 percent to 23 percent). The differences don’t depend on education, race, sex or age; the happiness difference exists even when you account for income.

Whether religion and marriage should make people happy is a question you have to answer for yourself. But consider this: Fifty-two percent of married, religious, politically conservative people (with kids) are very happy — versus only 14 percent of single, secular, liberal people without kids.

As I said in that first post,

I think it’s likely that happy people are more likely to be Republicans, while unhappy people are more likely to be Democrats, for unhappiness gives one an incentive to seek change, and happiness an incentive to resist it. But the causal link goes in the other direction as well, for Republicans stress freedom and individual responsibility, which lead people to feel in control and take action that changes their lives for the better, while Democrats assign blame to institutions, which makes people feel powerless and discourages them from undertaking ameliorative courses of action.

The dramatic differences between conservatives and liberals with respect to marriage and faith may point to another explanation. Conservatives have more social capital than liberals. Robert Putnam’s investigations into social capital—people’s trust, connectedness, willingness to cooperate, willingness to participate, feeling of involvement, etc.—shows that relatively homogeneous areas of the country have very high social capital, while large cities, especially on the coasts, have low social capital. Compare that to the electoral map from 2008:

Liberals tend to live in areas with low social capital. Conservatives tend to live in areas with high social capital.* Social capital, moreover, correlates closely with happiness levels.

Why do social capital and political affiliation correlate? Part of the reason is that trust, cooperation, involvement, and the like foster a self-reliant, “we can do it ourselves” attitude, while distrust, selfishness, self-involvement, and withdrawal incline people toward reliance on government. But the causal arrow goes the other way as well. Big government undermines and, over time, destroys social capital, while small government encourages and, over time, builds it.

* The two most evident exceptions are New England, which is liberal but has relatively high social capital, and the South, which is conservative but has relatively low social capital. The most likely explanation is that New England is fairly homogeneous, and the South highly diverse, in racial, ethnic, and economic terms.

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