Tue, Mar 17, 2015 - Page 12 News List

Happiness gap may favor liberals

Researchers have found that when behaviors rather than self-reports were examined, liberals seem to have a small but statistically significant happiness edge

By Erica Goode  /  NY Times News Service

US President Barack Obama smiles while speaking during a campaign event for Wisconsin Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke at North Division High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, last October. Recent studies show that although conservatives say they are happier, liberals behave happier.

Photo: EPA

Conservatives are happier than liberals, or so decades of surveys that ask about life satisfaction would suggest.

The existence of a so-called ideological happiness gap is so well established that recently social scientists have mostly tried to explain it.

But a new series of studies questions the gap itself, raising the possibility that although conservatives may report greater happiness than liberals, they are no more likely to act in ways that indicate that they really are happier.

“If it’s real happiness, it should show up in people’s behavior,” said Peter Ditto, a professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine, and an author of an article about the studies, which were led by Sean Wojcik, a doctoral candidate at the university.

“What our evidence suggests is that it’s limited to self-reports of subjective well-being,” Ditto said.

The article appears in an issue of the journal Science last week.

In fact, when behaviors rather than self-reports were examined, liberals seemed to have a small but statistically significant happiness edge.

The researchers examined two behaviors linked to happiness: smiling and using positive language. For their subject pool, they chose large groups whose political leanings could be identified with some reliability, including members of Congress and users of Twitter and LinkedIn.

One study analyzed the emotional content of more than 430 million words entered in the Congressional Record over 18 years. Liberal-leaning politicians, the researchers found, were more likely to use positive words and no more likely to use sad or negative words.

Political ideology in the study was defined by the speaker’s voting record or party affiliation.

The study also examined publicly available photographs of 533 members of Congress, finding that conservative politicians were less likely than liberals to display smiles involving facial muscles around the eyes, a measure that previous research has found to be associated with genuine emotion.

Two other studies analyzed the emotional tenor of language in 47,000 Twitter posts by nearly 4,000 Twitter users and the photographs of 457 users of LinkedIn, with similar results. The Twitter users were identified as liberal or conservative depending on whether they subscribed to feeds from the Democratic or Republican parties. The LinkedIn users were affiliated with organizations associated with liberal or conservative ideologies, like Planned Parenthood and the Family Research Council.

In their report, the researchers note that the ideology gap, while thoroughly established over the years, was based on a single methodology: asking people how happy they are.

But such self-reports, they argue, are susceptible to people’s habit of evaluating themselves in an unrealistically positive manner, a tendency that psychologists call self-enhancement.

A fourth study in the series surveyed visitors to YourMorals.org, a psychology research Web site, in which participants filled out questionnaires measuring life satisfaction and the propensity to self-enhance. As in previous research, conservatives reported greater happiness than liberals. But they were also more prone to self-enhancement, the study found.

“Conservatives’ reports of happiness do seem to be bolstered by this self-enhancing tendency,” Wojcik said.

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