By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 24, 2008
Now the good news for Republicans: You are happier than Democrats. You always have been, and you probably always will be.
Never mind that your presidential candidate is sinking in the polls while your president plumbs historic depths of popular scorn and your free market squeals for intervention while your investments evaporate on Wall Street. You are not just happier than the other guys, but more of you are very happy indeed, according to new survey results published yesterday by the Pew Research Center.
The pollsters were in the field asking about happiness this month, a period when economic news was gloomy for everybody and presidential campaign news seemed especially baleful for Republicans. Yet they found 37 percent of Republicans are "very happy," compared with 25 percent of Democrats; 51 percent of Republicans and 52 percent of Democrats are "pretty happy"; and 9 percent of Republicans are "not too happy," compared with 20 percent of Democrats.
The partisan happiness gap -- unbroken for nearly four decades -- is impervious to electoral ups and downs. It has something to do with worldview.
"I'm very happy," says Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, and a Republican. "When I was 12, I realized the world was not organized around my desires and wishes. The problem with guys on the left is they never figured that out at age 12. And they're just irritated the world is not organized around their vision. This makes them grumpy."
Chris Lehane doesn't sound grumpy. The Democratic consultant is on the phone from San Francisco: "My guess is if [Pew] checked the cross tabs out in California, we're all pretty happy out here. The wine is still good, the food is fresh, the people are beautiful."
But seriously, says Lehane, if Republicans are more happy, it's because they care less.
"The typical Republican is happy coming home to a 62-inch television, pulling out a fine bottle of cognac or Scotch, putting his feet on the table and enjoying the fruits of his labor, but not caring what's going on in the world outside their living room . . . and their gated community."
Government-funded researchers identified the happiness gap in 1972. Since then, the Democrats have been comparatively more bummed out not just during the tenures of GOP presidents Ford, Reagan, Bush and Bush. They were noticeably less joyful than Republicans even during the GOP fiasco of Watergate, and during the Democratic Carter and Clinton administrations.
This year, when things seem so rosy for Democrats, the joy gulch yawns wider than ever. The fraction of very happy Republicans has never been so much larger than the very happy Democrats.
What's the Republicans' secret to feeling groovy?
"They have more money," Paul Taylor, director of the Pew Social & Demographic Trends project, writes in the new report. "They have more friends. They are more religious. They are healthier. They are more likely to be married. They like their communities better. They like their jobs more. They are more satisfied with their family life. They like the weather better."
Wow, do Democrats need to get a life?
The data, alas, do not account for those furious Republicans at McCain-Palin rallies. Are they happy in their anger?
None of this proves being Republican causes happiness, Taylor cautions. Do happy people get married, attend weekly religious services and vote for John McCain? Or does devotion to marriage, God and McCain cause them to be happy?
The study does identify a series of characteristics found in many people who call themselves happy. Good health is a key factor. Marriage and religion are big, too, and so is wealth. (If money doesn't buy happiness, it appears to help with the down payment.)
When you control for all the other variables, Taylor says, a Republican is 13 percent or 7 percent more likely to be very happy than a Democrat, depending on which regression analysis model you use.
It turns out the happiness gap is not just an American phenomenon. In country after country, happiness studies find that "conservatives" are happier than "liberals."
They seem to be two species, with differently encoded DNA. The unequal balance-of-joy conjures hoary stereotypes: The jolly conservative, self-satisfied in his success, a doer not a doubter. The angst-ridden liberal, guilty in his success, a searcher not a finder.
"The question is not whether Republicans are happier than Democrats, or conservatives are happier than liberals," says Arthur Brooks, the incoming president of the American Enterprise Institute and author of "Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America -- and How We Can Get More of It." "That's unambiguously true. The question is, why?"
Brooks says a lot hinges on the answer to this question: Do you believe that hard work and perseverance can overcome disadvantages? Conservatives are more likely to say yes.
Pew found that Democrats are more likely to say that success in life is mostly determined by outside forces. Republicans lean toward thinking that success is determined by one's own efforts.
The hypothesis: Those who think they can control their destinies are happier.
Also: Extremists are happier than moderates, Brooks has concluded. Hard-core liberals are the happiest liberals and hard-core conservatives are the happiest people on Earth. Self-certainty is like a happy pill. The bumper sticker may declare, "If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention" -- but the guy behind the wheel is overjoyed.
The thing about happiness is how subjective it is. Happiness researchers like Taylor and Brooks don't claim to say whose worldview is more empirically correct, Norquist's or Lehane's.
Of course, being correct doesn't make you happy. But being right may help.