With his stirring words in the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson (and his committee of Founding Father editors) assures us that we have the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But in this time of great political strife, I was wondering who is generally happier — conservatives or progressives? And what is it that makes us happy anyway? I was surprised to learn there is quite a bit of independent research on both counts.
Mr. Jefferson purposely referred to the ambiguous trait of happiness in his document over the more conventional right to pursue property, which many of his editors suggested. That is because the Declaration was not only to be the starting point to create a new nation but also a call to arms against an oppressive ruler. It was agreed that the wide swath of property-less Americans at the time would be more likely to take up arms for the understandable concepts of life, liberty, and the chance to be happy. In the late 18th century the opportunity to marry, raise a family, practice the religion of your choice, and the chance to one day own property were the key factors to a happy life.
But what about today? What makes us happy? For many Americans it is being surrounded by a loving set of friends and family. For others it’s having a warm and welcoming home. For still others it may be the opportunity to pursue riches or the desire to serve others. You may be surprised that the United Nations pretty much agrees with this assessment. In their World Happiness Report, this body rates lives from the “best possible” to “worst possible” and have found that the most important happiness traits are the presence of a good social support system, income security, and good health. You’ll note that income security does not mean being rich. That is not what most people want. They want enough money to live securely and have what they need and not necessarily what they want. One only has to consider the misery of many well-heeled celebrities to know that is true.
Of these three main happiness factors, it is clear that governmental policy can greatly affect the latter two. Of course government policy can vary widely from a progressive stance to a conservative stance, and depending on how well your political and social outlook matches these policies, personal happiness will increase or decrease.
Before deciding which political stance promotes more happiness for the most people, it would be helpful to revisit what we mean by conservatism and progressivism. In general, conservatism maintains that the free market with little or no interference is best at creating a robust economy that pulls every individual to the level he or she deserves and in turn promotes income security and the means to pursue good health. For many, free market conservative principles do the best job of providing the best hope of attaining both. Progressives believe in “free-ish” markets that must have the safety rails of reasonable regulation to promote equity and justice not just for themselves but for others who are seen as disadvantaged through no fault of their own.
Minimum wage laws provide a good case study in the different outlooks as they pertain to happiness. Conservatives are wary of minimum wage laws and largely believe the free market and personal individual talent drives how much you are paid. This inherent fairness makes them happy. Progressives see flaws in this outlook because of the belief that all workers need the guarantee of a minimum living wage because, after all, we are all human beings and we don’t all start off from the same place. Conservatives want efficient outcomes; progressives favor just ones. There is no doubt that minimum wage laws have cost some jobs, but it is also clear that the laws have promoted a more secure standard of living for some and reduced poverty.
So, who is happier — conservatives or progressives? Like a lot of things today, it depends. There is a lot of research to suggest that conservatives are happier if you simply ask them. The Pew Research Center says that conservatives are 68 percent more likely to say they are very happy than progressives are. Lifestyle differences such as marriage and religion are cited as the main reasons. Most conservatives are married; most progressives are not. This is a matter of record. And believe it or not, marriage and happiness have been found to correlate very highly. Further, conservatives who practice a religion outnumber progressives 4 to 1. Religious participants are nearly twice as likely to say they are very happy than nonparticipants. Progressives maintain that conservatives are simply inattentive to the misery of others, and if they were, they wouldn’t be so happy. Progressives are less likely to wash their hands to the perceived inequality present in society.
But, there is an equal amount of research that says progressives are happier if you actually observe how they behave. One example is from Sean Wojcik, a respected psychological researcher from the University of California, who used linguistic analysis software and facial recognition software to analyze 9 million words in the Congressional Record, 47,000 tweets from 4,000 Twitter users with ties to conservative or progressive agendas, and about 1,000 candid photos of Members of Congress from newspapers, LinkedIn, and other sources throughout 2013 to judge happiness or the lack thereof. From these findings it was clear that progressives displayed many more genuine smiles and overt happiness than conservatives. Of course, the recent presidential reelection of Barack Obama may have had a lot to do with all the smiles.
So, how do you think Thomas Jefferson would think we are doing on the happiness scale? I think he would be pleased that the American experiment has largely succeeded and that most Americans are genuinely happy. But he would not be thrilled at the inequities and injustices that seem to run rampant in America today and drive so much unhappiness. Mr. Jefferson was a progressive of his time. He was a republican-democrat battling against those such as Alexander Hamilton and other nationalists who wished to keep the day’s ruling class in power and not yield too much of it to rank-and-file Americans. Mr. Jefferson was also a pragmatist who did not shy away from compromise or hold his political rivals in bitter contempt. Despite personal loss, he was, without a doubt, a happy man and confident in the idea of America.