Jewish World Review May 3, 2006 / 5 Iyar, 5766
Who's winning Happiness Wars?
One study calls conservatives indecisive and inhibited.Another says liberals see more crises in the world andare pessimistic. The sweet spot might be in the middle.
In our bitterly polarized society, liberals and conservatives not only argue over the right approaches for public policy but also do battle over which ideology more reliably produces private happiness. The left recently embraced an academic study that says right-wingers were whiny kids who grew into insecure adults, while conservatives trumpeted surveys showing that it's self-identified liberals who count as self-pitying and pessimistic.
The latest salvo in the "Happiness Wars" came from the University of California at Berkeley, where psychologists Jack and Jeanne H. Block tracked a group of nursery school kids for 20 years. According to their analysis, children who expressed conservative opinions as young adults qualified at the age of 4 as "easily victimized, easily offended, indecisive, fearful, rigid, inhibited and relatively over-controlled and vulnerable." They struck their preschool teachers as unhappy kids likely to develop troubled personalities. Sure enough, the Berkeley professors described the grown-up conservatives as "uncomfortable with uncertainty ... constricted in their behaviors, judging self against conformist norms, and moralistic," offering a stark contrast to their liberal schoolmates who became "vital, motivationally aware, perceptive, fluent, bright, with extensive and esthetic interests."
A skeptic might respond to these blatantly biased descriptions by arguing that any child from a conservative home growing up in leftist Berkeley might appropriately feel "fearful" and "vulnerable." Meanwhile, the suggestion that conservatives at any age count as less fulfilled than liberals flies in the face of several decades of statistical reports, including a paper by the non-partisan Pew Research Center.
The Pew researchers saw a major happiness gap between Republicans and Democrats — with just 30% of Dems describing themselves as "very happy," compared with 45% of all GOPers. In part, the GOP happiness advantage stems from the party's popularity with people who are married, religious, and well-to-do — because stable families, church-going and wealth all produce more positive attitudes. Nevertheless, Pew reports that even controlling for these factors, Republicans still hold "a significant edge," with poor Republicans more cheerful than poor Democrats, and single GOPers reporting more satisfaction than their opposite numbers in the Donkey party.
The Gallup organization made similar observations in January 2004, reporting "that Republicans may have found the keys to happiness, even after taking marital status and income levels into account." Six months earlier, professor James Lindgren of Northwestern University wrote that "conservatives were more satisfied with their health, their friendships, their family life, and the city or place they live — all in all, a remarkably consistent picture."
The best explanation for this Republican/conservative advantage involves the "Crisis of the Month" mentality of contemporary liberalism. Whether facing global warming or AIDS, homelessness or impending theocracy in the USA, today's left maximizes dire aspects of every situation and demands sweeping governmental responses. Those who want dramatic social change view the present more pessimistically. Poor conservatives might feel happier than poor liberals because they're more confident they'll make their way to the middle class, while rich conservatives report greater happiness than rich liberals because they feel less guilty about the wealth they've earned.
Nearly all human beings possess a profound, instinctive drive to alter reality, but those on the political left seek global change, while those on the right usually concentrate on transforming private situations with family, community and business — focusing on what conservative thinker Edmund Burke called the "little platoons" of society. All change is challenging, but it's easier to transform your world than the world — providing conservatives with a more dependable source of satisfaction. When leftist leaders howl that prejudice and economic injustice block progress by women, minorities and the poor, they might provoke indignation but they hardly promote confidence or contentment.
And what about the Berkeley analysis that finds it's conservatives who are more likely to feel insecure and threatened — a finding that corresponds to common media images of the grumpy reactionary? The study and the stereotype originate from the same facet of the conservative world view: distrust of human nature and a skeptical — if not cynical — view of ordinary people. When it comes to rehabilitating criminals, or ending homelessness with new housing projects, or making peace with deadly enemies through patient negotiation, liberals display far more optimism about humanity than do conservatives. Such confidence might be utterly misplaced — even na´ve —but it remains the most endearing attribute of liberalism and suggests a way Americans should draw from both left and right in pursuit of happiness.
Consider the current debate on immigration: Outraged voices on the hard right see illegal immigrants as "invaders" and "parasites," while leaders on the left and center emphasize their work ethic and concern for families. Regardless of the accuracy of either view, the more positive approach to the undocumented encourages optimism. It's no accident that the most durable conservative politicians have been those with warm public personalities (such as the unabashedly pro-immigration President Reagan and, yes, President Bush, despite his currently low approval ratings) who convey affection for their fellow citizens. Less genial conservatives (think Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich or Tom Tancredo) make less emotional connection with the electorate, whatever their countervailing virtues.
Most Americans remain stubbornly non-ideological and see no conflict in borrowing conservative skepticism about sweeping change, while adapting liberal faith in human nature. With the charges and countercharges in our current cultural combat, this best-of-both-worlds approach might offer the best prescription for both individual and national happiness.
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