The Unhappiness of Being Liberal

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. It’s a well-known result in social science research that liberals are unhappier than conservatives.


There are approximately 1 million articles on the internet that try to explain this. The latest is this (somewhat rambling and garbled) survey piece from the opinion section of the New York Times:

I’ll highlight what I thought was an important point:

Timothy A. Judge, chairman of the department of management and human resources at Notre Dame, wrote in a 2009 paper, “Core Self-Evaluations and Work Success,” that

Core self-evaluations (CSE) is a broad, integrative trait indicated by self-esteem, locus of control, generalized self-efficacy, and (low) neuroticism (high emotional stability).

Individuals with high levels of CSE perform better on their jobs, are more successful in their careers, are more satisfied with their jobs and lives, report lower levels of stress and conflict, cope more effectively with setbacks, and better capitalize on advantages and opportunities.

I asked Judge and other scholars a question: Have liberal pessimists fostered an outlook that spawns unhappiness as its adherents believe they face seemingly insurmountable structural barriers?

Judge replied by email:

I do share the perspective that a focus on status, hierarchies and institutions that reinforce privilege contributes to an external locus of control. And the reason is fairly straightforward. We can only change these things through collective, and often, policy initiatives — which tend to be complex, slow, often conflictual, and outside our individual control.

On the other hand, if I view “life’s chances” (Virginia Woolf’s term) to be mostly dependent on my own agency, this reflects an internal focus, which will often depend on enacting initiatives largely within my control.

Judge elaborated on his argument:

If our predominant focus in how we view the world is social inequities, status hierarchies, societal unfairness conferred by privilege, then everyone would agree that these things are not easy to fix, which means, in a sense, we must accept some unhappy premises: Life isn’t fair; outcomes are outside my control, often at the hands of bad, powerful actors; social change depends on collective action that may be conflictual; an individual may have limited power to control their own destiny, etc.

These are not happy thoughts because they cause me to view the world as inherently unfair, oppressive, conflictual, etc. It may or may not be right, but I would argue that these are in fact viewpoints of how we view the world, and our place in it, that would undermine our happiness.

At the end of the article, Judge suggests:

I would like to think that there is a version of modern progressivism that accepts many of the premises of the problem and causes of inequality but does so in a way that also celebrates the power of individualism, of consensus, and of common cause.

I think that’s one approach, though I’d argue that backgrounding political engagement is maybe more fruitful. That is: focusing on family, friends, relationships, activities, things we enjoy, our work, fitness, whatever–the things that define us and that we have some degree of agency in. I don’t know; I’m just spitballing. I read a lot of articles about happiness, and have spent a bunch of my social energy particularly over the last year or so on achieving stable contentment as a like a foundation for joy. I find that my political values are unchanged, but my sense of agency over political issues has significantly diminished, which is–you know–freeing! I can do the things I can do and save my emotional engagement for things and people I love. I probably make the world a better place by being kind to my harried barista, by fully engaging with my kids, by reacting graciously to the guy who cuts me off on the freeway, than by winning an argument online.

ignorance is bliss

beat me to it.

Climate change is a hoax? Golly, that’s a load off my shoulders!

When you think about it, it is the very core definition of the 2 sides that shows there will always be a gap.

Progressivism is about changing for the better, striving to meet equality for all through reforms.

Conservatism is about preserving traditions and social values.

One of those two requires a lot more thought and insight and desire to make changes, which inherently is more difficult and more prone to creating new problems and issues etc.

The person who wants to stay the same has an easier time than someone that seeks out to change something about themselves. This will always be the case.

And while that Pew research study said that it was controlling for race, I have serious doubts based on the fact that historically there has been a similar, significant happiness gap between white and black americans.

I see what you’re saying, but change–both societal and individual–is inevitable. I can’t stop getting older, accumulating mental and physical trauma, my kids maturing, tragedies happening, etc. I think a big difference is the amount of perceived agency we have to manage it. We progressives have to rely on collective action to make progress. Conservatives can adjust themselves to a new normal. So yeah, it’s kind of inherent in the philosophies.

But I don’t think its inevitable that we’re less able to reach happiness. I think there’s probably a way to want change and work for it and feel satisfied with our contributions and find joy in our lives and relationships.

It can be difficult to decouple this from politics when certain parties and states are trying to hurt the people we share these with.

I am sure as individuals we can reach happiness, but as a whole, the group is disadvantaged by a philosophy of “strive for better” baked into their ideology.

Progressivism is a philosophy of perpetual betterment, for the good of society. This requires changes/sacrifices/adjustments. Conservatism is protecting the status quo, which frankly, is much easier, especially when the majority of your party is cis/white/hetero. (where the status quo is really good).

What’s obvious from that article imo is that old guys really, really, really hate identity politics.

Slightly more seriously, i do think, basically, many forms of modern liberalism lead increasingly to isolation, especially if you live in an area that isn’t conducive for liberal ideas and values. “Internet people” who have “gotten out” and are now “thriving” have almost all been universally transplants to California or similar places. It’s 0 fun being a socially liberal person in rural Texas. One (of many) reasons conservatives hate hate hate identity politics with a burning sun hatred is that it seems to them to encourage people to not ‘fit in’. You’re supposed to just fit in with the general population. Not doing so marks you as an outsider. From their point of view it’s a ‘foreign ideology’ that’s ‘infecting’ their areas. But there probably is something about not fitting in and having political ideologies that have no actionable path forward that incredibly disheartening. Would kids be better off just sucking it up, going to church and doing the whole Good Conservative thing, so they can fit in and have social supports? But there’s going to be some major differences between having Identity Politics in Texarkana TX vs. Helsinki Finland, let’s be clear, even if there are some shared commonalities.

All these “found family” things sound great on the internet - it’s hard to know how many of these are social media talking points that lead them to being stranded a few years later or not. Nations haven’t made much progress at creating alternative social structures to supplement or replace home-based biological families. Also having families by their nature brings people into contact with other families just by default. America is especially sensitive to this - at least everyone in Finland is Finnish. Increasingly Americans - especially conservative Americans - don’t dignify everyone here with the same status.

To me it’s more like that VP or whoever from IBM or Microsoft that went back to Vermont and just turned off the national news and focused on local politics, and said he was much happier. Ultimately that does work, and it’s kind of an option for everyone. It’s one thing, though, to despair of change in California… it’s, uh, quite another to do so in Louisiana.

While there’s a fairly simplistic take on the overall issue of “people who like things as they are, are going to be happier”, I think that the stuff Matt has pointed out goes into a deeper, and more interesting aspect of the whole thing.

Specifically, if we are convinced that all of our problems stem from the external system being rigged against us, it creates a situation where our ability to actually improve our lives appears impossible, which leads to lower happiness.

I think we’ve seen this manifested even in this forum, where basically any problem sometimes gets distilled into, “well that’s just late stage capitalism!” It leads to this worldview where the only solution is to tear everything down… but the reality is, you aren’t going to tear everything down. And even if you were, that’s going to be a super complex, difficult, drawn out process. It transforms problems from things that we can chip away out and improve incrementally, into these massive, largely impossible to solve problems.

However, I’m curious if this type of differentiation between “conservatives” and “liberals” holds moving forward, given the essential changes we’re seeing in the right wing of our country’s political spectrum. As they’re fostering a base that is believing in crazy conspiracy theories, and an abandonment of any sort of individual responsibility, I would expect that they are going to see a similar externalization of the locus of control, and they’re going to see similar increases in unhappiness. Indeed, this may be an explanation for what I feel we already see among those folks, which is this kind of deep distrust, anger, and anxiety about stuff. Instead of believing that stuff is rigged against them by old institutions, they think things are rigged against them by the illuminati and globalists and whatever.

I’d be cautious about assigning any weight to modern phenomenon, the gap seems to be pretty stable going back to the seventies.

I do think it’s as simple as the degree to which the basics of a worldview are empowering (or not) at an individual level. If you view a problem as being socially created then you’re simply going to have a lot less good feelings about your prospects of personally transcending that problem. OTOH if you view things as primarily a question of individual virtue then well all you have to do is tug a bit harder at the ol’ bootstraps and you’ll get to where you want to be.

Only if their savior has the election stolen again.

But I agree with your hypothesis. And I think @Enidigm has a solution for individuals, focus locally. You can make a lot of positive impact to your immediate surroundings through direct actions. You can’t do that nationally or globally.

Yes, totally fair point, though I think the divide is more urban/rural than by state. I can’t imagine there’s any city in America where there’s not at least a liberal enclave for like-minded people.

Yeah, I agree, though I think there’s a way to perceive social problems as things that can be attacked locally, where we have agency, as @abrandt says above.

…and taking political engagement seriously enough to acknowledge the limits of political action, especially at a national level. We’ve had since at least the year 2000 to see that democracy is a clusterfuck by its nature. That it smooths out some societal issues and has no answers for others. And that societal change hardly ever comes at the rate of one human lifetime.

I don’t know what the stats say about differences in political engagement between liberals and conservatives, but I have a guess. Call it “ignorance is bliss” if you want, but it’s actually a matter of where people place their attention. If you rarely think about politics until you line up at the polls and pull the lever for the guy you vibe with, or the same guy all your neighbors are pulling the lever for, you’re placing that attention somewhere else–family, work, pointless shit like sports or fishing or gardening. You’re probably blind to a lot of injustices. But you’re also engaged with things you can do something about (with the exception of your local sports team’s win percentage, which is the thing that will ruin your day). The injustices you’re not blind to are the ones happening down the block, or to your kids.

The other half spends their time gathering up lists of problems that need fixing and thinking that if they democracy hard enough there might be progress. The bigger and more intractable the issue is, the more they care. They don’t give themselves the luxury of complacency. They’re almost puritanical in their morality. They feel obliged to have a judgment on everything. These are all qualities to their credit, but they’re also exhausting and frequently fruitless.

Here’s how I would sum it up: The happiest people are those who can live at human scale. Maybe they choose to, maybe they don’t know any better. Living with national and global consciousness is alienating and frustrating. It’s unfortunate that some people roughly a hundred years ago who also couldn’t help but think beyond the human did their best to fuck things up at a national and global level, because now we have to sacrifice our mental health to try to sort them out.

Yes and no? I mean up to a point sure, but in general I think it’s good to be clear-eyed about things and the reality is that while working locally can be empowering, it’s also necessarily limited in terms of impact.

It’s simply the case that (from my perspective) having a correct view of the world & its problems also will lead one to feeling less good about dealing with those problems. This is I think part of what is so seductive about any individualist political ideology: it’s mostly wrong, but it’s wrong in a way that feels good.

Focusing locally is absolutely the correct move, but on some level it means actually doing something, when I think that often people fall back onto feelings that everything is rigged against them because it’s simply easier to throw your hands up and do nothing.

It’s like the “We’ve tried nothing and we’re all out of ideas,” meme.

Actually doing stuff at the local level is a task people can engage in and make progress on, and eventually build into larger things, but it takes work. And not exciting work like walking in a huge crowd of protesters, but boring work like knocking on doors and filling out paperwork and attending meetings and stuff. And it’s slooooow.

It’s more than that. The conservative thinks things are great as they are, while the liberal thinks things could be a whole lot better. Of course the conservative is happier than the liberal; things are great, aren’t they?

Yes, that’s a good way of putting it.

But excepting the potential looming catastrophe of climate change, the world is better than it was! The trend is generally upward. It’s not uniformly upward and there’s no guarantee that it will continue that way forever and there’s climate change, but it’s hard not to look at history and not see progress. Isn’t it ok to be joyful about that? Sometimes you get so focused on the climb that you forget to take in the view.

The Trump slogan isn’t Keep Things Great. MAGAs recognize progress and are pissed about it. Can’t we be glad?

I think that’s fair! Certainly many things are better than they were.

Well, it depends on whether MAGA wins, doesn’t it? We can’t be happy about the internment camps, but many of the conservatives sure can.