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Opinion | Conservatives Are Happier Than Liberals. Discuss.

A 2018 paper, “Conservatives Report Greater Meaning in Life than Liberals,” by David B. Newman of the University of California-San Francisco, Norbert Schwarz and Arthur Stone of the University of Southern California, and Jesse Graham of the University of Utah, contends that across five studies

Conservatives reported more meaning and purpose in life than liberals at each reporting period. This finding remained significant after adjusting for religiosity and was usually stronger than the relationships involving other well-being measures.

In an email, Newman provided some explanation: “Conservatism on social issues (e.g., abortion and same-sex marriage) was a stronger predictor of meaning in life, whereas conservatism on economic issues (e.g., free markets) was a stronger predictor of life satisfaction.”

A reason for this, Newman continued, is that

one of the key ingredients to a meaningful life is a sense of coherence. If you can make sense of life’s events and if they seem to hang together in a consistent manner, you’ll find more meaning and purpose in life. Conservatives’ value for stability and their resistance to change could contribute to the coherence that provides them with meaning in life.

Newman argued that since “family ties and a strong sense of community and connectedness are key ingredients for a meaningful life,” it is possible that “if liberal agendas and ideologies inhibit social bonds and connections, it could lower people’s sense of meaning and purpose.”

It’s hardly surprising that there are scholars who disagree with the idea that conservatives experience a more satisfying sense of life’s meaning than liberals.

In “Liberal and conservative political ideologies: Different routes to happiness?” Becky Choma, Michael Busseri and Stanley Sadava argue that both strong liberals and strong conservatives achieve high levels of life satisfaction:

The direction and magnitude of the predictive effects of political conservatism and liberalism on life satisfaction were identical. A strong liberal or conservative orientation is predictive of high life satisfaction. These findings converge on the possibility that life satisfaction is influenced by having a strongly held political ideological belief system to explain one’s world, irrespective of the specific orientation of that framework.

Emma Onraet, Alain Van Hiel and Kristof Dhont, concluded in their paper, “The Relationship Between Right-Wing Ideological Attitudes and Psychological Well-Being,” that a comprehensive examination — a meta-analysis — of previous studies involving 97 samples with 69,221 participants shows “that right-wing attitudes are only weakly related to psychological well-being” and that “our results thus do not support previous theories that claim that right-wing attitudes yield substantial relationships with psychological well-being.”

The Onraet study did find, however, that “Among the elderly, adhering to right-wing attitudes is associated with higher levels of self-esteem, intrinsic goal pursuit and (a trend toward higher) life satisfaction.”

Why? Onraet, Van Hiel and Dhont provide a speculative answer:

Because the elderly focus on accepting their past life and integrating personal experiences and memories, they have a strong sense of being part of their culture and tradition and believe that it should be preserved in the future. As a result, right-wing attitudes seem to be comforting for older people and may, therefore, contribute to psychological well-being. Moreover, right-wing elderly might experience greater well-being because of their increased level of religiosity. Indeed, some studies revealed that religiosity mediates the relationship between conservatism and psychological well-being as religiosity becomes more important as a source of happiness and well-being in old age.

Are conservatives or liberals more inclined to intolerance, prejudice and authoritarianism?

Our study offers clear evidence that both political liberalism and conservatism predict intolerance of politically opposing targets and that such intolerance is explained by perceived threat from these targets.

Jarret Crawford, a professor of psychology at the College of New Jersey and the lead author of “The Balanced Ideological Antipathy Model: Explaining the Effects of Ideological Attitudes on Inter-Group Antipathy Across the Political Spectrum,” observed in an email that prejudice and intolerance can be found on both sides of the aisle:

The role of authoritarianism is a special type of political hostility we refer to as “political intolerance.” Political intolerance goes beyond simple dislike or negative emotions toward a group, and involves the belief that certain groups should be barred from access to political life. There is a core component of authoritarianism that is related to opposition to people’s political rights, regardless of whether those target people are on the political left or right.

When it comes to denying political rights to specific groups, Crawford continued,

We see pretty consistently that conservatives and liberals are intolerant of their political opponents (e.g., a liberal will oppose a pro-life group on campus to the same degree a conservative will oppose a pro-choice group on campus).

But, Crawford stressed,

Where we do see pretty consistent ideological differences is in abstract democratic principles (endorsing things like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, voting rights, etc.) I think this is to say that there is a stronger anti-democratic impulse on the right than on the left, less of a commitment to democracy. And, of course, I think we’re seeing that play out in national and local politics right now.

Looking at these issues from a different angle, Michael Steger, a professor of psychology at Colorado State University, described in an email his views on “meaning”:

What we feel confident in is that when people have a strong purpose that they care about and take steps to manifest, they say life is more meaningful and that they are happier, more helpful, and more resilient as well. We also see research showing that when people have important goals that they are blocked from achieving, they suffer more than if they have trivial goals they do not care so much about.

Because of this, Steger continued,

It seems very likely that to the extent that liberals have personalized equality, equity, fairness, environmental stewardship, or other issues associated with liberalism, the more susceptible they are to distress as progress toward the satisfaction of those goals is blocked. The same general idea would pertain to conservatives who have personalized conservative political goals that are seen as blocked. So, one idea here is, the stronger the purpose the greater the benefit when you are making progress and the greater the anguish when you are not.

In terms of subjective feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment, conservatism has some built-in advantages over liberalism, Steger argued:

The higher level of meaning we see among conservatives is tied to ideas around certainty and consistency. This shows up somewhat convincingly in religious commitment, which is higher among conservatives and is related to more meaning in life.

In terms of the search for meaning, Steger wrote,

Consistency is good. It helps us feel that we have made sense of our experience, which is a critical dimension of meaning in life. Having a worldview that works and never needs to change would be beneficial from the perspective of meaning in life.

Conversely, for liberals, more open-mindedness and less certainty

is more of a challenge because all the new information one encounters, and all the unanswerable questions one asks, must be integrated into our mental map. Liberals appear to place higher value on being open-minded and questioning, as well as on being future-oriented. This can leave them vulnerable to uncertainty and to having less solidity at the core of their worldviews.

Steger said that he has studied those engaged “in the search for meaning” as opposed to those who already have a strong sense of meaning. Generally, he writes,

In the United States, searching for meaning is associated with more distress. Never truly knowing if you have the right answer to lives’ grandest questions. Conservatives, especially religiously committed people, score very low on “search for meaning,” implying that they have their meaning and do not need to look any further.

What, then, can be drawn from these conflicting analyses?

First, be wary of the conclusion that conservatives are happier than liberals and that they find greater meaning in life.

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