Conservatives report higher happiness than liberals. Why is that? Maybe idealism comes at a price.
Conservatives tend to be happier than liberals.*
This is a consistent finding, replicated across different studies in different countries.
In particular, conservatives “reported feeling there was more meaning and purpose in life than liberals did.”
Even though the differences aren’t huge, I found it interesting to hypothesize why that might be.
Here’s one explanation, which is somewhat cynical, but probably there’s some truth to it: Wealthy people, the ones living in nice neighborhoods who send their kids to private schools, are typically conservative, because they want to keep their wealth and privileges in life. And yes, those folks are probably going to have an easier life than poor people, and they’ll be happier.
Reality isn’t this black and white, though: Very wealthy tech types often vote liberal, while poorer immigrant families (e.g. Latin Americans or Russian immigrants in Europe) often vote conservative.
Another explanation, which the study alluded to, is: “Conservatives tend to do the kinds of things that lead to happiness, like getting married and having children and, yes, going to church.”
Nowadays, we tend to be somewhat cynical towards all of these “conservative” things (and so am I, to some extent) – but these old-school things like marriage and religion tend to really make people happier, on average.
Another angle (which interests me most) would be to look at it more from a psychological perspective: Liberal folks are typically idealistic, they want more social justice, they are more open to different cultures and ways of living. They want to change the status quo.
The problem is that the gap between the status quo and this idealistic state is so striking that such a person will probably feel defeated sooner or later. Societal change happens very slowly.
Conservative folks typically want to keep things as they are or as they were before. They have a pretty good idea of what their ideal world would look like (typically including marriage, financial stability and going to church).
The thing is: all of these things are (somewhat) realistically achievable. And even if you can’t find a partner, at least there’s hope. Hope is the key word here. For an idealistic liberal, there might be less hope, because they don’t know if the world they dream of is realistically achievable (and how that world would even look like, which makes it even harder to find hope. And hope for a better future is essential if you want to be happy).
I think there’s something to be learned here: If you hope for big changes in society and our world, you’re probably going to be dissatisfied a lot.
If you’re an environmental activist, you probably will always be somewhat pissed off because things are not really moving forward.
If you oppose capitalism and want the gap between rich and poor to be closed, you’re probably going to be angry a lot living in the West as everything becomes more capitalistic and expensive, while billionaires become richer and richer and fly into space.
Does this mean you shouldn’t want the world to be a better place? No.
But you should know that your idealism likely comes with a price: a good chunk of your happiness.
* Note to people outside the U.S.: “Liberal” in this context means “politically left” (i.e. typically more welfare, higher taxes for the rich etc.). What we call liberal in Europe is not the same – Americans would call that “libertarian”.