Republicans are happier than Democrats, according to the report “Are We Happy Yet?” recently released by the Pew Research Center. Based on a nationally representative, random sample in the United States, 45% of Republicans report being “very happy,” compared with just 30% of Democrats and 19% of Independents.
What is particularly striking about this finding is that it is not simply a reflection of the current political environment. Rather, as the Pew report notes, Republicans have been consistently happier than Democrats throughout the entire period since 1972, when the General Social Survey (GSS) began measuring happiness in the US.
What’s more, Republicans are happier than Democrats even after controlling for other factors. For instance, among individuals making less than $30,000 per year, 28% of Republicans report being “very happy,” versus 23% of Democrats. Among individuals making over $75,000 per year, 52% of Republicans report being very happy versus 41% of Democrats.
So how can these consistent differences in happiness be explained? Three types of causal relationships that may be invoked to explain this association between party affiliation and happiness. Being a Republican may cause greater happiness. Or it may be that happier people are more likely to become Republican. Or, perhaps both happiness and party affiliation are related because both are determined by some other causal factor.
To better understand how these causal relationships might operate let’s look at some potential sources of happiness, or subjective well being, at a more general level.
Part of individual happiness is likely determined by complex psychological dispositions, from more stable elements such as personality traits and attitudes to more transitory elements like emotional states or moods. However, there is no apparent reason to assume that these psychological characteristics vary systematically with political affiliation. That is, it’s hard to imagine any reason why, if there are individuals that are genetically or psychologically predisposed to be happier, they are also are more likely to become Republicans.
What seems more probable is that, if some individuals are more genetically or psychologically predisposed to be happy than others, then such characteristics are randomly distributed in the population. Turning from purely psychological sources of happiness, then, let’s look at some more social psychological and sociological sources. The scholarly literature on subjective well-being, particularly research on job satisfaction, suggests another place to look: how individuals interpret and evaluate objective situations and how successful they are in achieving their goals and aspirations.
One potential source of happiness, then, is individual interpretations and evaluations of objective conditions. Is a given individual satisfied with a particular state of affairs in which they find themselves, with their job or their community? What about the economic and social situations of their country and/or the world?
It may be that for most individuals, happiness is based on evaluations of such objective circumstances. But people tend to selectively perceive and emphasize aspects their “objective situation” any two individuals in the same circumstances may perceive, and hence understand the same situation differently. A further complication is that happiness likely depends not only on how the objective situation is perceived and defined, but also on what are an individual’s goals and aspirations, and how successful one is in achieving these.
Even if most people define subjective well-being in broadly comparable terms, such as “economic concerns,” individuals may vary in the specific criteria by which such broad concerns are evaluated and how they prioritize goals and aspirations. Thus, individual happiness may primarily be determined by what an individual defines as important in terms of her objective situation, what her goals are and how successful she is in achieving them.
These social psychological sources of happiness, particularly in terms of what goals are prioritized and how one identifies with others, may vary systematically with party affiliation. That is, it may be that Republicans are happier than non-Republicans because they actually interpret the world differently, prioritizing different goals and identifying with different groups of people.
This explanation is similar to a theory of job satisfaction offered by sociologist Randy Hodson, who makes a distinction between different types of workers: “smooth operators” and “good soldiers.” Smooth operators advance their own goals in the workplace as a first priority and thus are likely to be satisfied, but they may or may not advance organizational goals. In contrast, good soldiers are likely to identify with their employer and thus be committed to the organization, but may be unsatisfied, for example, if they observe less effort on the part of smooth operators.
A similar difference in goal prioritization and identification may be related to party affiliation. I hypothesize that Republicans, as a group, may be happier because, on average, they prioritize personal goals and largely identify with people similar to them. Compared with Democrats and Independents, their main goals are narrower and more selfish, and thus more easily obtained. Despite having had to endure some political defeats, including the Carter and Clinton administrations, over the last 30 years, the economic situations of Republicans and the people they care about most have remained relatively good.
This is not to say that all Republicans are selfish and unconcerned with the welfare of others. But, as a group, the data on happiness are consistent with the argument that they are more self-centered and less concerned with social problems than Democrats or Independents. Republicans certainly have opinions on social problems such as growing inequality and war, but these problems may not enter into their definitions of subjective well-being, or at least not as much as non-Republicans.
In contrast, Democrats and Independents may be less happy because, on average, they define their personal goals more broadly and they identify with less fortunate groups of people. Thus, they are less happy, as a group, because they are more concerned with growing problems in their communities, in the US and the world.
If the foregoing interpretation is correct, then it is neither happiness that leads to political affiliation nor a particular political affiliation that determines happiness. Rather, it is how one interprets the world, the goals one prioritizes and the groups that one identifies with that determine both party affiliation and happiness. This makes sense intuitively. In short, it appears that Republicans are happier, on average, than non-Republicans because they are more likely to be individuals that selectively perceive their objective circumstances so that they do not get overly concerned with the misery and poverty of the world, and they more selfishly define their own role in the world.
MATT VIDAL is pursuing his doctorate at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org