Happiness and Political Leaning

In The Owner’s Manusmilesal for Happiness, I reported on research that found conservatives, on average, to describe themselves to be somewhat happier than liberals. This finding was explained by pointing to the conservative’s tendency to accept things the way they are/have been, to embrace tradition, and to be “happy” with things in general. The liberal’s tendency towards malaise was explained by a discontent with the status quo, a call for change, and a tendency to be “unhappy” with the status of the poor and disenfranchised.

A study reported by UC Irvine’s Sean Wojcik and others in Science for March 13, 2015, finds the opposite to be true! Let me summarize their extensive (thousands of subjects) research in everyday language.

First, the researchers suspected that the traditional happiness surveys were failing to identify the true feelings of liberals and conservatives. Other research has shown conservatives to respond to questions such as “I am fully in control of my own fate” and “I always obey laws, even if I’m unlikely to get caught” with a resounding “Strongly Agree.” Researchers call this socially desirable responding, or self-enhancing, or responding in a way that makes one sound better, more ideal, than one really is. Consequently, they reasoned, when conservatives are presented with a happiness survey question such as “On balance I would say I am a happy person,” they would strongly agree with this item, as it contains a strong element of social desirability. To test this assumption, they measured 1,433 individuals in three areas:

  1. Political affiliation
  2. Degree of happiness/well-being
  3. Tendency to Engage in Desirable Responding

Bingo! They found that more conservative individuals reported themselves to be happier, AND that conservatives tended to respond in the socially desirable manner (e.g., strongly agreed with “I always obey laws”).

Armed with this support for their hunch—that conservatives were not really as deep-down happy as they were letting on—they designed an extensive program to look not at what liberals and conservatives SAID about their happiness levels, but instead to look at liberals’ and conservatives’ ACTUAL BEHAVIOR. For example, do liberals or conservatives smile more? But not just any old smile—the Duchenne smile, an expression that is near impossible to fake. To accomplish this genuine smile, the cheek’s zygomaticus major muscle must contract to raise the corners of one’s mouth, while simultaneously the orbicularis occuli around the eye socket contracts so as to form a so-called crow’s foot pattern on the edge of one’s eyes. It is relatively easy to raise one’s lips in smile, but no so much the creation of crows’ feet at one’s eyes. The upturned lips without crows’ feet is referred to as a Pan Am, or fake, smile. See the example at top left.

Here is what they found:

  • In the language used by members of the U. S. Congress in the 2013 Congressional Record, conservatives used fewer words that expressed positive emotions.
  • In the same analysis, liberals showed a higher ratio of positive feeling words to negative feeling words than did conservatives.
  • Using the Congressional Pictorial Directory of the 113th Congress, researchers found that liberals engaged in more intense smiles.
  • In the same analysis, liberals engaged in more genuine smiles—the Duchenne smile.
  • Reviewing Twitter account holders who were self-identified Democrats or Republicans, liberals’ tweets were more likely to contain positive feeling words, happy emoticons, and expressions of joviality, while conservatives’ tweets were more likely to contain negative emotion words.
  • Reviewing LinkedIn accounts, the researchers found that persons working in politically left- or right-leaning organizations (say, Planned Parenthood vs. the Family Research Council), pictures of liberals were more likely to contain more intense and more genuine (i.e., Duchenne) smiles.

While these differences are not huge, they do consistently indicate a tendency for liberals to behave in a manner that suggests a greater sense of well-being, while conservatives tend to mask their feelings with expressions of contentment.

One word of caution: Politicians and Tweeters are not a random sample! It will be interesting to see if these findings hold up as their sample expands to become more inclusive.

I am unsure what the practical implications of these findings are. What is more important than averages and trends is that each of us as individuals—regardless of political leanings–be genuine with one another with respect to our feelings. High quality, intimate relationships characterized by genuine communication will trump averages and standard deviations any day.

One thought on “Happiness and Political Leaning

Add yours

  1. Time to stop with the sweeping group generalizations (men/women are …, liberals/conservatives are …) in social science research. There is always about as much variability WITHIN these groups as BETWEEN them. For example, gender accounts for about 5% of variance in meta-analyses of behavioral science research (one of few big differences between men and women: max distance throwing a ball. Not many others!). So knowing someone’s gender or political affiliation or “race” tells us relatively little about them. So let’s get to know people the old fashioned way: one person at a time!
    (BTW: great to see Pierce tackle the topic of happiness)
    Baird Brightman PhD @ Worklife Strategies (www.wklf.com)

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