Why conservatives are happier than liberals

Psychologists at New York University say they’ve found the answer to why people with right wing political views are happier than left-leaning liberals (as previously indicated by survey research). In short, conservatives are less upset by inequality because they believe people generally get what they deserve in life.

Jaime Napier and John Jost gave questionnaires to over a thousand Americans and found that conservatives were happier than liberals even after controlling for the possible influence of demographic differences, such as in wealth and religiosity. Crucially, they found that at least some of the difference in happiness was explained by the conservatives being less bothered by inequality.

A second study found a similar pattern in nine other countries, including New Zealand, Norway and Spain. This time the greater happiness of conservatives was associated with their meritocratic beliefs – for example, their belief that, in the long run, hard work usually brings a better life.

A final study showed that liberals in America have grown less happy as inequality has risen, whereas the happiness of conservatives has remained unaffected. This appears to confirm Napier and Jost’s contention that right wing political beliefs can guard against the potentially upsetting effects of inequality.

The pair concluded that beliefs can have a protective effect on happiness in other walks of life too. “Research suggests that highly egalitarian women are less happy in their marriages compared with their more traditional counterparts apparently because they are more troubled by disparities in domestic labour” they said.

Napier, J.L., Jost, J.T. (2008). Why Are Conservatives Happier Than Liberals?. Psychological Science, 19(6), 565-572. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02124.x

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Also on the Digest:
Conservatives are less creative than liberals
People sensitive to disgust are more likely to hold right-wing views

5 thoughts on “Why conservatives are happier than liberals”

  1. In Study 1, they mentioned using US political party allegiance to measure ‘liberalness’ or ‘conservatism’, and groups participants as ‘left-wingers’ or ‘right-wingers’.I really doubt this is valid.My first point is that politics is much more complicatd than a simple “Left/Right” dichotomy. Let’s take, for example, Robert Mugabe and the Dalai Lama.On the axis of “economy”, they are in a similar position. (i.e. leaning towards communism). However, on the authoritarianism axis, they are almost polar opposites, with the Dalai Lama near the “libertarian” end of the scale, and Mugabe towards the “Fascist” end of the scale.For more information on why the left/right system is inadequate, see http://www.politicalcompass.org.My second point is that using the Republican/Democrat scale to diffrentiate between liberals and conservatives is flawed because they are both “right wing” parties.Again, taking information from politicalcompass.org, you can see the relative scores of John McCain and Barack Obama. The differences are minute, and mostly economic, boiling down into “communism vs capitalism”, as opposed to “liberal vs conservative”.

  2. Conservatives see the positive value of inequality. If you want to do better in life, there has to be somewhere better to go, i.e. some inequality has to exist between your current circumstances and your dreams.

    1. “Some” may be the operative word. But there is now a ton and a half of research showing that economic inequality in developed societies is associated with poor levels on a great many indicators of social well-being. (See “The Spirit Level” by Wilkinson and Pickett, and the Equality Trust website). Interestingly, the same findings occur within the United States, when one treats the 50 states as if they were 50 separate countries. The most unequal states also have the worst levels on the indicators of social well-being.

      This is not an argument for total equality, necessarily. It could well be that there is an optimum level of equality/inequality. If so, it is very clear that few countries approach it at the moment.

  3. I’ve got the article on order; can’t read immediately due to 12-month embargo.It will interesting to note if the research found “[conservatives] believe people generally get what they deserve in life.”

  4. I would agree with Jonathan's comments that classifying people as conservative or liberal is a bit simplistic. For instance I would describe myself as a social conservative (pro-family, anti-abortion, pro-religion) but an economic liberal who sees hard-working people scraping by on the minimum wage while Paris Hilton cavorts around having the time of her life. It's interesting the way the Right seem to have hijacked religion in the U.S. – there must be a people who want social justice AND conservative values!

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