Are Conservatives Deluded About Their Happiness?

Arthur C. Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute does the usual uninformed thing this week in his NYT op-ed, Conservatives Are Happier, and Extremists Are Happiest of All.

He cites the well-known and long-standing research showing that conservatives report themselves to be happier than liberals. (I was not aware, though, that moderates are the least happy of all. Makes sense to me. Bryan Caplan has made the strong case that ideology is a valued good — something people will sacrifice time and money to acquire and maintain. Unhappy moderates suggests that rigid and extreme ideologies are more valued.)

But Brooks skips two key facts:

1. There are two ways to measure self-reported happiness. A. Ask people randomly in the course of the day how they’re feeling. B. Ask them how they feel about their life in general, in retrospect and in prospect.

The results don’t correlate well at all. People are really bad at remembering how happy they were, and they’re even worse at predicting how happy they’ll be in a given situation. Brooks seems to be talking purely about the retrospective/prospective rather than in-the-moment research. (There’s been a lot more of the former than the latter.) This doesn’t invalidate the findings, but it does make you curious about conservatives’ (self-perceived and reported) happiness in the moment. How accurately do they remember and predict that happiness? Are they more self-deluded about their happiness?

That brings up the other point:

2. Those who are less happy are more accurate in perceiving the true facts in the world around them. For example: When pushing a button that supposedly affects a (randomly) blinking light, mildly depressed people are much more likely to say, “no, I had no effect on whether the light turned on.” Non-depressed people think they’re controlling the thing.

Brooks does the typical thing, arguing against the weakest counterargument (yes, some liberals have some very weak and stupid arguments):

“Liberals may be less happy than conservatives because they are less ideologically prepared to rationalize (or explain away) the degree of inequality in society.”

So liberals’ realistic perception of inequality is what  makes them less happy. Yeah, right. How about instead: they’re more realistic about  the frequent cruelty and random evil and misery that the world offers up. They understand that God is either omnipotent or compassionate, but clearly not both.

This makes me wonder: is a self-perception of being happy a more valued good for conservatives than for liberals? Or, does reporting themselves to be happy make conservatives happier than it does liberals?






2 responses to “Are Conservatives Deluded About Their Happiness?”

  1. Tom Hickey Avatar
    Tom Hickey

    Cognitive studies show that people are unreliable reporters of their happiness because they focus on the last experience. It is was good, they say they are happy overall, even though the rest of the lives don’t reflect it, and vice versa. It’s one of the many recognized cognitive biases that argues against the rationality axiom, and researchers are continually discovering new ones. Turns out that Keynes’s “animal spirits” was an understatement. Actually, logicians knew about major cognitive biases for millennia. They called them informal fallacies, and non-rigorous reasoning is littered with them.

  2. JazzBumpa Avatar

    They understand that God might possibly by some wild stretch of the imagination be either omnipotent or compassionate, but clearly not both.

    Fixed that for you.