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.
Some may question the methodology behind these results and that is a legitimate inquiry. I am all for looking at the methods of this research and I am not ready to say that this research is the last word. But I do not want to debate the methods right now. If in time there is new research that supersedes these results then so be it. But until there is more convincing research we should consider the implications of these findings. So if these findings are sound then what are reasonable explanations for them?
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.
If we throw that reason out then why do conservatives score higher on happiness measures than liberals and why are activists happier than moderates? There is no way to know for sure with the quantitative measures used in this article but allow me to speculate about a couple of ideas. The key is that whatever theory we come up with has to explain both the political and activist effect.
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.
Or we could argue that the routines of our society deaden our spirits. Therefore people are happier when they get out of those stifling routines. Activists get out of those routines. They live life to the fullest. Their protesting allows them to live beyond the socially constructed rules that confine the rest of us. Such an explanation may be accurate. There may be elements in our society that stifle us and rob us of our happiness. But this cannot be the entire story. If it was then conservative and liberal activists would be equally happy. But Tea Partiers are happier than Occupiers. Since there is no reason to believe that conservative activists escape the routines of society more than liberal activists then it is safe to say that breaking out of those routines is not the basic reason for increased happiness.
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 theory clearly explains an activist effect. Activists, no matter their political persuasion, believe themselves to have a purpose they are living out. The sacrifices protesters make to do their protests actually strengthen their beliefs and confirm that their lives have purpose. Theories of cognitive dissonance indicate that sacrificial actions supporting a certain belief system serve to strengthen an individual’s support for that belief system. Of course moderates can have a sense of purpose. But they are more likely to not have the same depth of purpose as individuals who are living out their beliefs on “the front lines”. Moderates obviously are not making the same sacrifices activists make to support a cause that is larger than themselves. Thus moderates are less likely to see meaning in life and less likely to gain happiness from living for a meaningful ideal.
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.
This theory of purpose seems to be the best way to explain these effects. If it is an accurate theory, then it might offer us insight for our personal lives. Happiness is not necessarily tied to efforts to make our lives easier or better. We sometimes make the mistake of believing that the more we personally consume or gain in personal status, then the more we can become happy. But happiness comes from working for something larger than us. We may give away our own personal resources to others or work to make our society a better place. But it is in the working towards this greater purpose that happiness and contentment becomes more likely. Even if you are unsure about this particular study about happiness or my explanation of that relationship, I think you will discover that finding a purpose larger than yourself can bring a happiness that efforts at self-aggrandizement simply will not bring.