Posted by Jay Livingston
Are conservatives happier than liberals. Arthur Brooks thinks so. Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. And he’s happy, or at least he comes across as happy in his monthly op-EDS for the Times. In those op-EDS, he sometimes claims that conservatives are generally happier.
When he makes those claims to the hundreds of thousands of Times readers, I point out, to the readers of this blog (hundreds on a good day), that when you’re talking about the relation between political views and happiness, you ought to consider who is in power. Otherwise, it’s like asking whether Yankee fans are happier than RedSox fans without checking the AL East standings. (Those posts are here and here.)
Now that the 2016 GSS data is out, we can compare the happiness of liberals and conservatives during the Bush years and the Obama years. The GSS happiness item asks, “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days – would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?”
On the question of who is “very happy,” it looks as though Brooks nailed it, if you can call a difference of 5-10 percentage points nailing it. More of the people on the right are very happy in both periods. But also note that in the Obama years about 12% of those very happy folks (five out of 40) stopped being very happy.
But something else was happening during the Obama years. It wasn’t just that some of the very happy conservatives weren’t quite so happy. The opposition to Obama was not about happiness. Neither was the Trump campaign with its unrelenting negativism. What it showed was that a lot of people on the right were angry. None of that sunny Reaganesque Morning in America for them. That feeling is reflected in the numbers who told the GSS that they were “not too happy.”
Among extreme conservatives, the percent who were not happy doubled during the Obama years. The increase in unhappiness was about 60% for those who identified themselves as “conservative” (neither slight nor extreme). In the last eight years, the more conservative a person’s views, the greater the likelihood of being not too happy. The pattern is reversed for liberals during the Bush years. Unhappiness rises as you more further left.
The graphs also show that for those in the middle of the spectrum – about 60% of the people – politics makes no discernible change in happiness. Their proportion of “not too happy” remained stable regardless of who was in the White House. Those middle categories do give support to Brook’s idea that conservatives are generally somewhat happier. But as you move further out on the political spectrum the link between political views and happiness depends much more on which side is winning. Just as at Fenway or the Stadium, the fans who are cheering – or booing – the loudest are the ones whose happiness will be most affected by their team’s won-lost record.