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Getting to the heart of conservatives’ happiness

by CIFAR Feb 13 / 13

In 2006, the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan US think tank, released a report that found that Republicans were much more likely to report being “very happy” than Democrats, a pattern that has persisted for decades but no one knew why.

Conservative voters at a rally.
Image: Reuters/Chris Wattie

Two years later, a paper written by two New York University psychologists was the first to try to explain this gap. The paper argued that the difference in happiness arose because conservative ideology has “system-justifying tendencies” which buffer conservatives from perceived unfairness in society.

A research paper published in Social Psychological and Personality Science and co-authored by Senior Fellow Alex Haslam (University of Queensland) challenges this idea and provides a different view stipulating that the happiness of conservatives has more to do with their ties to a large number of social groups.

Dr. Haslam and his team polled 816 undergraduate students in the UK and found that those who identified themselves as conservative also tended to have higher socioeconomic status than liberals. And although this status did not directly “buy” happiness, the researchers found that higher social class led people to have access to more social groups and hence to have more opportunities to network, and that this in turn increased their well-being. This material pathway also explained considerably more variance in the data than one involving ideology, which actually explained very little.

A growing body of psychological research, including work by Dr. Haslam, shows that people are happier and more resilient when they belong to social groups, and that, generally speaking, the more groups they belong to the better. Emerging research also suggests that the best way to address low levels of happiness, such as depression, is not to focus on changing people’s ideology, but to improve their social networks.

A series of intervention studies that Dr. Haslam and his CIFAR colleagues, in particular, Senior Fellow Catherine Haslam and Global Scholar Renate Ysseldyk, have conducted continue to show that bringing people together to work in groups can lead to life-changing improvements in health and well-being.

The study was conducted with support from a University of Queensland Mid-Career Research Fellowship and CIFAR.