Between Democrats & Republicans, Here's Who's The Happiest

Photographed by Geordy Pearson.
For years now, psychologists have described a political "happiness gap" between liberals and conservatives. But, new research suggests that one party's members may benefit a lot more from the divide.

The study, published this week in Science, consists of four experiments. In the first, the researchers looked at a sample of 1,433 survey respondents who answered questions assessing their levels of life satisfaction as well as their tendencies to "engage in self-deceptive enhancement." Results showed that conservatives rated higher on both, meaning that although they may report feeling better about their lives than liberals do, they may also have a tendency to see themselves and their experiences through unrealistically rosy glasses.

In the next three experiments, the investigators used behavioral measures to look at this pattern. For instance, one protocol involved examining U.S. Congress members' use of positive and negative language as well as how often they smiled in publicly available photos. Again, conservatives didn't look so happy: They tended to use fewer positive-affect words relative to negative ones, and they smiled less intensely than their liberal colleagues.

Overall, these results suggest that conservatives aren't actually any happier than liberals, even though they report feeling that way. If anything, liberals seem to be slightly more comfortable showing happiness (via smiling and positive interactions) than conservatives are.

This new research is more in-depth than previous studies of this phenomenon, which have usually relied only on self-reporting — i.e. how happy participants claim to be. (Self-reporting, rather than observation, often results in conservatives coming out ahead on supposed happiness levels.)

All of these measures are subject to varying degrees of unreliability (for instance, standards for ratings may vary greatly between individuals). But, by incorporating all of these different dimensions, this new study gets beyond those common pitfalls to find more nuanced results about the ways our political beliefs affect and are influenced by our lives and personalities. The authors suggest their results may be due to differences in beliefs about things such as personal agency, optimism, and moral values. So, don't worry — there's still plenty to argue about.
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