Conservatives say they’re happier, but liberals act happier. Here's why

by Marc Wilson / 22 May, 2019
Photo/Getty Images

Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Conservatives liberals happiness

Much of the work on happiness is based on surveys, but what happens if we examine what people actually do?

You can’t tell to look at me, but I have done time on telly. I did the voiceovers and everything. I got to see how TV is made, and realised a lot of misconceptions I had about the process. I also got to chat with legendary producer Cass Avery. Among other things, she worked on TVNZ’s satirical Eating Media Lunch, which she said received more Broadcasting Standards Authority complaints than any other show at that time.

I was reminded of this during a conversation with a recent visitor to our shores, Peter Ditto of the University of California, Irvine. We were speculating about the intersection of humour and politics.

In Ditto’s US context, there are liberal-leaning TV comedy shows that poke fun at political conservatives and a much smaller number of shows that poke fun solely at liberals. Does this mean, I wondered, that there are political differences in senses of humour? I don’t think New Zealand has TV comedy that’s so polarised. Three’s 7 Days, for example, seems to go in for more equal-opportunity ribbing of people from across the political landscape.

We don’t really know much about senses of humour and politics, but Ditto has spent a lot of time looking at whether political liberals and conservatives are psychologically different in other domains.

Happiness is one of those domains that may overlap with humour. There’s a small but robust relationship between a person’s political orientation and how happy they say they are. Specifically, the more politically conservative you feel you are, the happier you tend to claim to be.

Indeed, I find the same thing in New Zealand. The more people agree with the “conservative” position on both economic and social issues, the happier they say they are. The more they self-identify as conservative or right-wing, the happier they say they are. And if they say they vote for National or Act, they say they’re happier than people who say they vote for Labour or the Green Party.

However, this is how happy people say they are. Ditto and his colleagues have done research using a variety of methods to see if conservatives really are happier than liberals.

Peter Ditto. Photo/Supplied

Much of this work is based on people answering questions in surveys. What happens if we examine what people actually do? Ditto’s team looked at several objective indices of happiness and positive emotion and found the conservative happiness gap may not translate to real life.

For example, independent analysis of official photos of Republican and Democrat politicians shows that Democrats tend to have more “real” smiles than their conservative counterparts. Real smiles engage muscles that are automatic – around the eyes – and can’t be faked.

When I looked at our parliamentary website, I couldn’t spot too many obviously fake smiles, even from those I consider grumpy automatons. Ditto’s analysis of “emotion words” in tweets by people who follow either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party also showed Democratic supporters used more positive emotion words than their gloomier counterparts.

So, conservatives say they’re happier, but liberals act happier. Why the discrepancy? Ditto says there’s a third variable: what research calls self-deceptive enhancement or, more colloquially, how much you kid yourself that you’re cool. When you measure people’s predisposition to self-enhance, you find that the happiness gap goes away or, in some places, even flips around. In New Zealand, the difference disappears.

Before the liberals start crowing, self-enhancement is also associated with important things such as self-esteem, and it’s argued that it’s protective to see the world – and your place in it – through rose-tinted glasses. It’s also unclear whether the happiness you feel because you’re deluded is any less real than the liberal happiness that comes in spite of worrying that you’re not cool.

This article was first published in the April 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


What filmmaker Andrea Bosshard learned from her goldsmith father Kobi
107381 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

What filmmaker Andrea Bosshard learned from her go…

by Ken Downie

Filmmaker Andrea Bosshard inherited a creative streak from her goldsmith father Kobi but he also taught her an important life lesson.

Read more
Will Uber disrupt itself with its Jump scooters?
107383 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Tech

Will Uber disrupt itself with its Jump scooters?

by Peter Griffin

Around 800 electric scooters arrived in Wellington this week, with local start-up Flamingo and Uber-owned Jump launching at virtually the same time.

Read more
Libra: Why Facebook is the best and worst company to create a cryptocurrency
107416 2019-06-19 00:00:00Z Tech

Libra: Why Facebook is the best and worst company…

by Peter Griffin

There is a strong incentive for Facebook to own the crypto space, the way it has social media.

Read more
Win a double pass to Yesterday
107340 2019-06-18 09:48:44Z Win

Win a double pass to Yesterday

by The Listener

Yesterday, everyone knew The Beatles. Today, only Jack remembers their songs. He’s about to become a very big deal.

Read more
Mass protests protect Hong Kong's legal autonomy from China – for now
107337 2019-06-18 00:00:00Z World

Mass protests protect Hong Kong's legal autonomy f…

by Kelly Chernin

Protesters in Hong Kong have achieved a major victory in their fight to protect their legal system from Chinese interference.

Read more
Sir Roger Hall on why we need to treasure NZ's portrait art
107286 2019-06-18 00:00:00Z Arts

Sir Roger Hall on why we need to treasure NZ's por…

by Roger Hall

On an Australian art tour, playwright Sir Roger Hall found that a portrait gallery can be so much more than a snapshot of a country’s social history.

Read more
ANZ boss's departure: 'What was the NZ board doing to monitor expenses?'
Why you shouldn't force kids to eat everything on their plates
107161 2019-06-18 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Why you shouldn't force kids to eat everything on…

by Jennifer Bowden

Forcing children to finish everything on their plates sets them up for a bad relationship with food.

Read more