Why Conservatives Say They Are Happier Than Liberals

Q&A with Arthur Brooks, whose new book says the liberal agenda takes a personal toll.

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Arthur Brooks, author of "Gross National Happiness."

What's the key to happiness? Liberals might tell you a hot latte, vivid expressions of diversity, and a copy of the New York Times. That doesn't sound too bad, but in data mined for his new book, Gross National Happiness, Arthur Brooks, a professor of business and government at Syracuse University, finds that conservatives are twice as likely as liberals to say they're happy. That's not necessarily because of their politics but because they are statistically more likely to be married, go to church, and be optimistic about their future—boosting personal happiness. For liberals, the rates are lower. The author suggests that while the liberal equity agenda may be honorable, it exacts a personal toll. Indeed, happiness is full of surprises: Political ideologues are positively joyful—by making others miserable. Brooks explains to U.S. News the quirks and politics of happiness.

Why are liberals so bummed out?

Liberals are more likely to feel like victims and feel that collective action is the best way to make things happen. That may be right, but it's a frustrating way to live. The Democratic Party is a coalition of oppressed groups. These are legitimate grievances in a lot of cases, but that does not make for a happy party. So is this book another thing for liberals to feel bad about?

It shouldn't be. There's something like 17 million happy liberals in America. America is a happy country notwithstanding its politics. But there is a political breakdown. If we understand why certain groups have the happiness edge, there's no reason other groups can't get it, too. Liberals shouldn't read this book and say, "Hey, the reason I'm unhappy is because I'm evil and wrong." There is no claim that conservatives are better or righter. But it's undeniable that there is something conservatives have in their lives that makes them happier than liberals. Conservatives aren't known as a jolly bunch. What makes them feel so happy?

Half of the difference between conservatives and liberals is demographic. It has to do with religion and marriage, which is more frequent among conservatives. The real question is why is the other half unexplained? Conservatives have a different orientation. Conservatives think there is a lot of opportunity in America. A lot of liberals feel this way, too, but conservatives overwhelmingly believe if you go around and work hard and persevere, you're going to get ahead, as opposed to you are a victim of circumstance or oppression and you are screwed in life. Again, that might be right, but it's not happy. Plenty of liberals' reaction to that would be, "Well, ignorance is bliss."

That, of course, is the fox and the grapes. It's Aesopian. The Republicans get out their big foam fingers on this, and Democrats say it's all baloney anyway. They say, "You would be depressed if you had any idea what's going on." Again, I don't think it's like that. My own feeling is that conservatives are a lot more optimistic about what opportunities are out there for them. The fact that people who are on the fringes politically—in other words, ideologues—are most likely to describe themselves as very happy makes one question the merits of happiness.

Is happiness legitimate if your enemies have it? I can't answer that. It's a universal human cognition; people have it. We can measure it. How you get it can be suspect. You can feel good from smoking crack. That doesn't make feeling good a bad thing, but the means to it can be a bad thing. I'm just observing these are the people who are happy. There are things we can do: One is to make our politicians not accountable to extremists; the other is to stop feeding them because they are political entertainment. But you also argue that religion may be the biggest factor of all.

Religious liberals are pretty happy people. And you can say conservatives don't care about the needy, but you'll find conservatives are giving more to private charity. That's not because of their politics; it's because of their religion. There is this view that liberals believe in human goodness and conservatives are hardhearted, but the data don't bear that out.