In the spirit of bringing up politically incorrect research for discussion allow me to introduce this. For those who just want the executive summary basically this research suggests that conservatives are happier than liberals. Moreover, activists on both sides of the political fence are happier than their moderate brothers and sisters. But conservative activists are happier than liberal activists. So both Tea Partiers and Occupy Wall Street folks are happier than the moderates who sit out the protests but there is more happiness in the Tea Party than in the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Let me first agree with the author of the article that it is a copout to argue that liberals are less happy because they have more awareness of societal problems. Liberals have concerns and so do conservatives. Individuals are entitled to believe that the concerns of progressives are more legitimate than the concerns of conservatives, but this does not explain their differing level of happiness. For there to be differing levels of happiness we would have to believe that liberals worry more about our society than conservatives and there is no reason to believe that.
For example, some may argue that this happiness is due to religious differences. Political conservatives are more likely to be religious than political liberals. There is evidence that religiosity is positively correlated to happiness. Of course as a Christian it would fit with my worldview to accept such a theory, but I have to maintain my skepticism. Indeed, religion probably explains part of the difference. But I am confident that this is not the entire explanation because it does not explain the activist effect. I have not been to an Occupy Wall Street rally, but from what I have seen on television there are not a lot of sermons going on in those rallies. The members of that movement are happier than liberal moderates but there is no reason to believe that they are more religious than those moderates.
So how do we explain both the political and activist effect? I propose a theory of “purpose”. My argument is that part of what makes us happy is having the sense that there is purpose in our lives and we are working towards fulfilling that purpose. This is especially true if we see that purpose as being larger than ourselves and thus has an effect beyond our life. When we have purpose then we do not feel that our actions are in vain, even if we do not see immediate results in them. Life has meaning and that meaning produces happiness.
This also helps explain the political effect when we take into consideration the religious difference. Religion is a powerful way we gain a sense of purpose larger than ourselves. Almost by definition to have religious beliefs is to acknowledge something that is greater than us. A conservative political ideology does not seem more likely to provide a tremendous sense of purpose than a liberal political ideology; however, when we combine that conservative political ideology with a religious belief system then it can be argued that conservatives have a happiness advantage due to a higher probability that they will find religious meaning in their lives. Progressives may be able to offset some of this advantage when they become activists and emphasize a secular purpose (i.e. environmentalism, Marxism) that is greater than themselves. But this activism is not likely to totally overcome the political conservative advantage embedded in religion and this can generate the results found in this research on happiness.