How to be happy (be politically conservative?)
July 9, 2012 2 Comments
Couple of interesting Op-Ed’s on happiness in the NYT yesterday. The first was a nice summary of what we know about happiness research (a subject I’ve hit before). Short version: once you hit $75K/year you are all good and spend your money on experiences and other people, not objects for yourself (that said, I’ve got to say that $400 for an Ipad definitely increased the overall happiness quotient of several members of the Greene family). And, of course, we just spent a good chunk of change on an experience– a trip to the beach. Definitely worth it. Here’s the key portion of the Op-Ed:
Interestingly, and usefully, it turns out that what we do with our money plays a far more important role than how much money we make. Imagine three people each win $1 million in the lottery. Suppose one person attempts to buy every single thing he has ever wanted; one puts it all in the bank and uses the money only sparingly, for special occasions; and one gives it all to charity. At the end of the year, they all would report an additional $1 million of income. Many of us would follow the first person’s strategy, but the latter two winners are likely to get the bigger happiness bang for their buck.
We usually think of having more money as allowing us to buy more and more of the stuff we like for ourselves, from bigger houses to fancier cars to better wine to more finely pixilated televisions. But these typical spending tendencies — buying more, and buying for ourselves — are ineffective at turning money into happiness. A decade of research has demonstrated that if you insist on spending money on yourself, you should shift from buying stuff (TVs and cars) to experiences (trips and special evenings out). Our own recent research shows that in addition to buying more experiences, you’re better served in many cases by simply buying less — and buying for others.
Certainly good advice. Then, in an interesting juxtaposition, Arthur Brooks comes along and argues you just need to be politically conservative (okay, not exactly, but that’s the general gist). Basically, a lot of social science shows that conservatives are more likely to be part of religious communities and to be married– both of which are correlated with higher happiness. Thing is, though, something tells me if a person kept their present lifestyle and started hating gays, abortions, taxes, social services for poor people, and a clean environment, they would not suddenly be happier. Brooks does give us these correlations:
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.
But, he fails to actually then make a case at all that this has anything to do with being politically conservative. I think the answers lies in the finding he highlights that those at the political extremes tend to be happier:
People at the extremes are happier than political moderates. Correcting for income, education, age, race, family situation and religion, the happiest Americans are those who say they are either “extremely conservative” (48 percent very happy) or “extremely liberal” (35 percent). Everyone else is less happy, with the nadir at dead-center “moderate” (26 percent).
What explains this odd pattern? One possibility is that extremists have the whole world figured out, and sorted into good guys and bad guys. They have the security of knowing what’s wrong, and whom to fight. They are the happy warriors.
I suspect the answer lies in the fact that conservatives are more likely to be extremely conservative and in the fact that the conservative worldview, all else being equal, adopts a position of certainty in knowing right and wrong (e.g., the fact that liberals are much more willing to compromise on important policy issues). Finally, I think conservatives are much more likely– as Brooks only addresses obliquely– to blithely go through life convinced that we live in a just world (newsflash: we don’t).