An interesting review of the ‘well-being gap’ between liberals and conservatives

American Affairs Journal has published an interesting essay looking at what the author calls the “well-being gap.” Essentially this is the idea, which is apparently fairly well known among social scientists, that conservatives tend to be happier in general while liberals are more likely to be depressed.

Author Musa al-Gharbi is a sociologist at Columbia University and he starts with a topic that I’ve raised several times recently: The fact that liberal teens are struggling with mental health much more than conservative teens, especially over the last decade.

Although the study by Gimbrone et al. was focused on trends among young people, the well-being gap between conservatives and liberals is not unique to youth. The gap manifests clearly across all age groups and is present as far back as the polling goes. In the General Social Survey, for instance, there has been a consistent 10 percentage point gap between the share of conservatives versus liberals who report being “very happy” in virtually every iteration since 1972 (when the GSS was launched).

Academic research consistently finds the same pattern. Conservatives do not just report higher levels of happiness, they also report higher levels of meaning in their lives. The effects of conservatism seem to be enhanced when conservatives are surrounded by others like themselves. However, in an analysis looking at ninety countries from 1981 through 2014, the social psychologists Olga Stavrova and Maike Luhmann found “the positive association between conservative ideology and happiness only rarely reversed. Liberals were happier than conservatives in only 5 out of 92 countries and never in the United States.”

The reasons for this are not fully understood though there are many theories.

Conservatives are more likely to be patriotic and religious. They are more likely to be (happilymarried and less likely to divorce. Religiosity, in turn, correlates with greater subjective and objective well-being (hereherehere). So does patriotism. So does marriage. Consequently, some have argued that the apparent psychological benefit of conservatism actually comes from feeling deeper connections with one’s country, one’s family, and the Divine. On this model, conservatism itself would be largely incidental to the happiness gap. A liberal who was similarly religious, or patriotic, or had a similarly happy marriage, would be expected to have similar levels of happiness as conservative peers.

In a similar vein, studies have repeatedly found that conservatives—both politicians and laymen—tend to be more conventionally attractive than liberals (and have better sex lives). Moreover, people who are healthier in childhood have been shown to be more likely to become conservative as adults.

But while these things seem to often be true of conservatives, it’s hard to parse which factors are causes or if all of them are caused by something else. For instance, the author cites a study from 2020 that finds that even if you control for religiosity (how regularly someone attends services) liberals are still about twice as likely to have a mental health condition.

Another possibility is that all of these differences come down to some kind of genetic predisposition:

It’s possible that genetics and biology could explain much of the observed relationship between liberal identification and mental illness. After all, there is robust evidence that individuals’ political, ideological, and moral dispositions are biology-based and heritable to a significant degree (herehereherehereherehere). One might hope that cultural interventions such as education could help people transcend biological differences and approach common ground. However, the opposite seems true: cognitive sophistication reinforces and exacerbates intrinsic differences rather than reducing them…

Other studies have found that people who score highly on “Dark Triad” characteristics (narcissism, psychopathy, Machivallianism) may be especially likely to gravitate towards certain strains of “social justice” ideology (herehereherehereherehere). Likewise with many inclined towards authoritarianism (hereherehereherehere).

He considers a number of other possibilities including that something about liberalism itself is driving away happiness from its own adherents:

…white liberals view all other racial and ethnic subgroups more warmly than their own. There is no other combination of ideology and race or ethnicity that produces a similar pattern. This tension—being part of a group that one hates—creates strong dissociative pressures on many white liberals. This may help explain the racialized differences among liberals with respect to mental health.

As I said earlier, the point of the piece isn’t to reach a definitive conclusion about a specific cause for the “well being gap” between conservatives and liberals, rather the point is to review some of the possible explanations and the support for them. I find all of it very interesting. It makes me wonder to what degree many of our political debates stem from predispositions that most of us don’t think about much of the time. Honestly it makes me feel lucky that, by whatever means, I wound up on the side where people are generally happier and less prone to depression.



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