Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Why is happiness related to political attitudes?

This post provides some further thoughts on the question of why people who label themselves as being on the right of the political spectrum tend to be happier than those who label themselves as on the left.

In my last post on this subject (here) I discussed some research by Jaime Napier and John Jost which suggests that some of the association between political orientation and subjective well-being is accounted for by beliefs about inequality. The authors conclude that liberals tend to be less happy than conservatives because “they lack ideological rationalizations that would help them frame inequality in a positive (or at least neutral) light”.

Andrew Norton commented on his blog: “I think there is a better theory, one that is more consistent with the subjective well-being literature, which explains this result: that both lower average happiness and leftism have a common link to a weaker sense of personal control and optimism. Both these attributes are strongly correlated with happiness; and one of the tasks of the ‘positive psychology’ movement (the clinical side of subjective well-being research) is to try to enhance these senses” (here).

I responded:
“My first thought was that a weak sense of personal control is likely to be more of a problem for low-income earners and the non-religious. Beliefs about inequality seem to be shown up as significant even in studies that control for both income levels and church attendance.
However, I am attracted to James Buchanan’s argument that the strongest motivation for big government these days is that people are afraid to be free (references here). It seems to me that may be just another way of saying that a lot of people lack a sense of personal control.It is possible that beliefs about inequality and a sense of lack of personal control could both be relevant in explaining why those who self-identify as left are less happy. Arthur Brooks seems to combine both factors (see ‘Gross National Happiness’, pp 30-33). It would be interesting to see research which seeks to identify their relative importance.”

Having thought about this further I now doubt whether it would be possible to disentangle the effects of the relative importance of beliefs about inequality and feelings of lack of personal control to assess their relative importance as determinants of happiness. It might be more appropriate to view these factors as components of a syndrome – a combination of opinions, behaviour etc. .

I have come to this view after re-reading a section of “Gross National Happiness” in which Arthur Brooks discusses links between beliefs about upward mobility, feelings about inequality and happiness (pp 140-151). There is strong evidence that people on the left do tend to be pessimistic about upward mobility. In the case of people on below average incomes it makes sense that such beliefs would tend to result in feelings of lack of personal control (e.g. that nothing that they do makes any difference) and relatively low satisfaction with life, combined with leftish political views.

It is more difficult to see why pessimism about mobility should affect the happiness of people on above-average incomes. They might see lack of mobility as a social problem but they are not personally affected. Arthur Brooks suggests that these people tend to make themselves unhappy by repeating depressing messages about the perceived unfairness of income inequality. I suppose that is possible, but I have some difficulty in accepting that concerns about income inequality would, by themselves, have significant adverse effects on the happiness of people who have above-average incomes.

One possible explanation is that pessimism about income mobility might be just representative of a collection of beliefs (including for example beliefs about the environment) that would tend to reduce the happiness of people with above average incomes who have leftish views. When asked how happy they are these people might be inclined to think about the problems of the world and their perceived inability to do anything about those problems.


Michael said...

In "The Anti-Capilistic Mentality" Ludvig von Mises discusses the frame of mind of the anti-capitalist egalitarian. To him - and remember this was written in another time - the liberal is unhappy because she is constantly reminded of her shortcomings in the marketplace of life. Her only chance to shine is the non-comitting blah-blah of politics - her cries of "Save the children, the whales, the poor, the whatnot" is basically one great, big "Save me!".

She thinks capital automatically leads to profit so she sees those who have aquired capital as unfairly advantaged, and herself as unfairly handicapped. She sees capital as a pie, a zero-sum distribution game, and not as the game of collective growth it really is. She sees destruction when businesses that she enjoys go bust, and not the necessary market adjustment that it really is - so that something better, more properous and more responsible can grow in its place.

Who wouldn't be unhappy in this frame of mind?

Winton Bates said...

Thanks for your comment, Michael. I notice that the Mises book you refer to is available on the web at: