“For three decades, the General Social Survey has asked a nationwide sample of adults, “Taken all together, how happy would you say you are these days? Would you say that you are very happy, pretty happy, or not too happy?” Here is a representative sample of the results:
• In 2004, 44 percent of respondents who said they were “conservative” or “very conservative” said they were “very happy,” versus just 25 percent of people who called themselves “liberal” or “very liberal.” (Note that this comparison uses unweighted data — when the data are weighted, the gap is 46 percent to 28 percent.)
• Adults on the political right are only half as likely as those on the left to say, “At times, I think I am no good at all.” They are also less likely to say they are dissatisfied with themselves, that they are inclined to feel like a failure, or to be pessimistic about their futures.
• It doesn’t matter who holds political power. The happiness gap between conservatives and liberals has persisted for at least 30 years. Indeed, the difference was greater some years under Bill Clinton than it was under George W. Bush. Democrats may very well win the presidency in 2008, and no doubt many liberals will enjoy seeing conservatives grieving out about that — but the data say that conservatives will still be happier people than liberals.”
Here is the second part, which answers to some of the common criticism of the data above:
“Lots of readers weighed in, offering explanations for these data patterns. Here were their most frequent explanations:
1. Conservatives and liberals have different lifestyles, particularly regarding religion and marriage, which explains why conservatives are happier.
2. Conservatives have a world-view that — right or wrong — lends itself to greater happiness.
3. Brooks is an untrustworthy fool.
While #3 might be meritorious, let’s leave it aside and just focus on explanation #1 here and #2 in the next post.
There is good evidence to back up demographic explanations for the happiness gap, and I have found in my research that they soak up about half the gap between left and right. Religion is arguably the most important of these characteristics.
Consider a couple of facts:
• The 2004 General Social Survey (G.S.S.) reveals that 43 percent of people who attended a house of worship weekly (“religious” people, for short) said they were “very happy” with their lives, versus 23 percent of people who attended seldom or never (“secularists”).
• Religious people are a third more likely than secularists to say they are optimistic about the future. Secularists are nearly twice as likely as religious people to say, “I am inclined to feel I am a failure.” Big happiness differences persist between religious and secular folks even when we correct for income, education, race, sex, and age.
Now combine these with the familiar evidence on politics and religion:
• According to the 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, religious conservatives outnumber religious liberals in America by nearly four to one.
• The American political left is getting more godless, while the right is turning ever-churchier. While 27 percent of “extremely liberal” American liberals attended religious services weekly in 1974, only 16 percent did so by 2004.
In contrast, the percentage of “extremely conservative” church-attending conservatives rose over the same period from 29 percent to 57 percent.
No surprise, then: religious practice explains a good portion of the left-right happiness gap. In fact, when we combine religion and politics, happiness differences explode”