Saturday, June 02, 2007

The Politics of Happiness

The strange fact of the matter is that the hard-core liberals and conservatives in America are actually some of our happiest citizens. According to the National Opinion Research Center in 2004, in spite of all their bile, 35% of people who said they are "extremely liberal" also reported being "very happy" with their lives -- versus 22% of people who were just "liberal" and 28% of moderates. At the same time, a whopping 48% of people who were "extremely conservative" were very happy (compared with 43% of non-extreme conservatives).

Not surprisingly, there is also evidence that people with extreme views are less empathetic and compassionate than others. They are less loving toward family members, and less charitable with their money. They are even less honest in everyday transactions.

So how on earth could these people be happier than the rest of us? Perhaps the intensity of their political views animates them in some positive way, giving them a sense of purpose. Or maybe there is something else about the life of the average extremist that brings lots of joy. In either case, what we see is that the anger we associate with the far left and far right is apparently compatible with their happiness. The trouble is that, while radicals may be happy, they undoubtedly lower the happiness of the rest of us through their intolerance and antisocial ways -- spewing out what economists call "externalities" with every insulting bumper sticker and obnoxious street demonstration. Political nastiness is something akin to pollution.
Personally, I explain their happiness as being divorced from reality. If you have an ideology that doesn't change regardless of the facts, it is easy to retain your happiness. No matter what happens, you always believe you are right. Unfortunately for the rest of us in the reality based community, these people give you nothing but headaches.

The Happiness Hypothesis puts it like this:
In fact, evidence shows that people who hold pervasive positive illusions about themselves, their abilities, and their future prospects are mentally healthier, happier, and better like than people who lack such illusions. But such biases can make people feel that they deserve more than they do, thereby setting the stage for endless disputes with other people who feel equally over-entitled.

Pronin and Ross use the term "naive realism": Each of us thinks we see the world directly, as it really is. We further believe that the facts as we see them are there for all to see, therefore others should agree with us. If they don't agree, it follows either that they have not yet been exposed to the relevant facts or else that they are blinded by their interests and ideologies. It just seems plain as day, to the naive realist, that everyone is influenced by ideology and self-interest. Except for me. I see things as they are.
via W$J via Greg Mankiw Blog


Mark Ontkush said...

This is very funny, I might agree with you - divorced from reality. But I would include myself in the equation

Fat Knowledge said...

Well then, I envy your happiness. :)

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