Of all Americans who voted for Joe Biden, 16% reported having depression in 2020.

Margin of error = ±2.4%

Why Being Conservative is Correlated with Higher Happiness

In “How to Understand the Well-Being Gap between Liberals and Conservatives,” Musa al-Gharbi summarizes many studies that show that conservatives are more likely than liberals/progressives to describe themselves as happy, and this relationship holds when one controls for demographics. In other words, conservatives do not report being happier because they are more advantaged; instead, a conservative who has the same social circumstances as a progressive is likelier to be happy. Al-Garbi says that this finding is consistent across countries and extends back in time.

1. Replicating the basic pattern: conservatism is associated with happiness.

We can confirm the main finding with data from Tufts’ 2022 Equity in America survey. We drew a representative sample of 1,831 Americans, with large subsamples of African Americans and Latinos to allow more precise estimates of racial/ethnic differences. We also collected an extraordinary number of measures about each respondent.

We asked, “Taken all together, how would you say things are these days? Would you say you are… Very happy, Pretty happy, or Not too happy?”

In a model with age, education, race and gender, more education and older age predict greater happiness. (We know from extensive research that the age curve is not linear; happiness dips in middle age. That pattern is invisible in a linear regression.)

If income, marital status, religious service-attendance, and a self-report of physical health are added, then only marriage, physical health, and religious participation are significantly related to reported happiness. Education and age are no longer significant. Perhaps older and better educated people are more happy because they are more likely to be married and in good health.

If ideology is added, it is also significant (p <.002), with more conservative people more likely to report being happy. Here is that model. The last four variables are significant. Since both religion and ideology are significant in the this model, it does not appear that religiosity explains the association between happiness and conservatism.

2. Could the explanation be progressives’ social awareness?

Some progressives might say that they are unhappy because they are rightly conscious of social injustices and dangers. Thus their unhappiness reflects social concern.

We can test this hypothesis to a limited extent with our survey. It includes a few relevant attitudinal questions along with many variables about life circumstances. I added the following four items to the above model:

  • How bothered have you been witnessing someone in a public place being treated unfairly because of their race?
  • How has the pandemic impacted your mental health?
  • Thinking about climate change makes me feel anxious. [Agree/disagree]
  • Someone [I] know has been unfairly stopped, searched, questioned, physically threatened or abused by the police. [Agree/disagree]

Except the climate question, each of these except climate change is related to unhappiness to a statistically significant degree. However, being liberal is still also related to being unhappy. That means that these specific concerns seem to accompany unhappiness but do not explain away the ideological “effect.” Or, to put it another way, someone who was not worried about these four specific things, but who identified as a liberal, would still be more likely than a conservative to be unhappy

3. Could liberals display a negative bias?

A conservative might be inclined to see progressives as negatively biased rather than socially conscious. And there may be some evidence of that in our data. We also asked: “Imagine a ladder with 10 rungs (or steps). At the top of the ladder (rung #10) are the people who are the best off, those who have the most money, most education, and best jobs. At the bottom are the people who are the worst off, those who have the least money, least education, worst jobs, or no job (rung #1). What rung from 10 through 1 best represents where you think you stand on the ladder.”

I used that item as the dependent variable in place of self-reported happiness. Liberals/progressives rated themselves lower on the ladder compared to other people when I controlled for demographics. In other words, if a liberal and a conservative have the same income, education, race, gender, age, marital status, and religious attendance, the conservative will feel more fortunate. A critic might say that liberals are people who–regardless of their actual social positions–rate their own circumstances relatively poorly, and that attitude drives their ideology and makes them unhappy or else reflects their unhappiness. (NB Income has a very slight but significant negative relationship with feeling successful in this model.)

4. People with depression cluster on the left.

However, there may be a different explanation. In our sample, 281 people say they have been diagnosed with depression. If I remove them from the sample and run the first regression shown above (the one with happiness as the dependent variable), ideology is no longer statistically significant. Now, only physical health, race and household income are related to happiness (with whites being more likely to report being happy).

It does not seem to be the case that progressives in general are slightly less happy than conservatives, when other factors are similar. Rather, people with depression are reducing the mean happiness of liberals.

Indeed, people with depression cluster on the left. In the sample as a whole, 5% of respondents identify as extremely liberal, but 14% of the people who have been diagnosed with depression are extremely liberal.
Conservatives represent 18.5% of the sample but just 11% of those with diagnosed depression. This pattern is consistent with previous studies.

Saying that you are depressed or reporting a diagnosis of depression depends on many factors–not only one’s mental health and access to medical care but also one’s beliefs and attitudes about psychology, which may relate to ideology. From our survey, it is not clear whether depressed people are concentrated on the left or whether people who employ the label of depression tilt that way.

5. Does Civic Engagement Help?

Researchers at Tufts University’s CIRCLE–Lily Feng and Sara Suzuki with Alberto Medina, SJ McGeady–recently found that “High levels of political engagement [are] related to poor mental health across many groups of young people, but not among those with high levels of community assets and connections.”

When regular voting and working as a canvasser (going door-to-door for a cause) are added to the first model shown above, these factors are significantly and positively related to happiness. In that model, being conservative is still related to happiness, but with a small standardized coefficient and a significance level of 0.045.

This is suggestive evidence that being civically engaged boosts happiness for many people, regardless of their ideology, but for those who are engaged, being liberal is related to less happiness.

*I wanted to know whether committed activists on the left were likely to be depressed, but we only have data from 31 left-oriented people who protested in the past year, which is too small a sample to tell. See also: how predictable is the rest of your life?the aspiration curve from youth to old ageare Americans ‘innocent of ideology’?party identification and ideology over time.