Conservatives get more bang for their vote because their degree of satisfaction with their lives is strongly correlated with their political environment. When a conservative person lives in a conservative environment in a conservative country, he or she (but more likely he) will be happy. And if that sounds tautological, it isn’t: Liberals don’t feel more life satisfaction when they live in a liberal environment. These are the dual conclusions of a new study from the University of Cologne, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, that sheds a different light on America’s current political moment.
Does this make conservatives selfish? Yes and no. The researchers write that the correlations seem to be a product of personality type rather than direct experience. Conservatives don’t feel better because a specific gay couple can’t get married. They feel better knowing that they are ideologically in sync with the power structure. Living in a country where their ideology is the dominant one makes them happier because they need to feel like they fit in. This is less a product of selfishness and more of a product of a hunger for acceptance.
“We believe this to be at the heart of our results,” writes co-author Olga Stavrova in a statement. “It is nothing intrinsic to the conservative ideology. For conservatives, social belonging seems to matter a great deal. Liberals are more autonomous.”
The researchers conducted a study in two parts. They already knew that conservatives had been found to be happier than liberals, but they didn’t know why. In the first study they looked at 40 years of data from 40,000 respondents to the General Social Survey, an American life satisfaction survey that’s been conducted since 1972. Then they added the data from 150,000 respondents from 92 countries who participated in the World Values Survey. They examined the individuals’ political attitude and life satisfaction within the context of the overall political climate. When they crunched the numbers, they found the same phenomena occurring around the world: When the political climate of a country was particularly conservative, life satisfaction among conservatives was very strong. This was true for essentially every country except Germany, where there was hardly any correlation between political ideology and being happy. (One wonders if a national trepidation towards nationalism accounts for the outlier.)
The researchers found no correlation between political beliefs and life satisfaction for liberals. As previous studies have concluded, this isn’t because of an active choice that anyone is making: Variations between liberals and conservatives are likely rooted in their physiological variations.
The researchers believe that this mindset explains the fluctuations in life satisfaction levels in the United States over the past 40 years. In 2004, for example, life satisfaction among conservatives was very high. In 2008, it was decidedly not. This adds context to previous Gallup polling which has found that over the past 20 years, American political parties have become increasingly polarized — and Americans increasingly see opposing parties’ ideology as a threat to the nation’s well being.
Americans are, as a whole, less satisfied when the country is liberal even if the country is also prosperous. Make of that what you will.