March 27, 2008

BRIGHT, BUT MISERABLE:

The joys of parenthood : Why conservatives are happier than liberals: a review of Gross National Happiness by Arthur Brooks (Lexington, 3/27/08, The Economist)

It is a subtle and engaging distillation of oceans of data. When researchers ask parents what they enjoy, it turns out that they prefer almost anything to looking after their children. Eating, shopping, exercising, cooking, praying and watching television were all rated more pleasurable than watching the brats, even if they don't bite. As Mr Brooks puts it: “There are many things in a parent's life that bring great joy. For example, spending time away from [one's] children.”

Despite this, American parents are much more likely to be happy than non-parents. This is for two reasons, argues Mr Brooks, an economist at Syracuse University. Even if children are irksome now, they lend meaning to life in the long term. And the kind of people who are happy are also more likely to have children. Which leads on to Mr Brooks's most controversial finding: in America, conservatives are happier than liberals.

Several books have been written about happiness in recent years. Some have tried to discern which nations are the happiest. Many more purport to offer a foolproof guide to self-fulfilment. Others wonder if the obsessive pursuit of happiness is itself making people miserable. Mr Brooks offers something different. He writes only about Americans, thus avoiding the pitfalls of trying to figure out, for example, whether Japanese people mean the same thing as Danes when they say they are happy. And he writes intriguingly about the politics of happiness.

In 2004 Americans who called themselves “conservative” or “very conservative” were nearly twice as likely to tell pollsters they were “very happy” as those who considered themselves “liberal” or “very liberal” (44% versus 25%). One might think this was because liberals were made wretched by George Bush. But the data show that American conservatives have been consistently happier than liberals for at least 35 years.

This is not because they are richer; they are not. Mr Brooks thinks three factors are important. Conservatives are twice as likely as liberals to be married and twice as likely to attend church every week. Married, religious people are more likely than secular singles to be happy. They are also more likely to have children, which makes Mr Brooks confident that the next generation will be at least as happy as the current one.

When religious and political differences are combined, the results are striking. Secular liberals are as likely to say they are “not too happy” as to say they are very happy (22% to 22%). Religious conservatives are ten times more likely to report being very happy than not too happy (50% to 5%). Religious liberals are about as happy as secular conservatives.

Why should this be so? Mr Brooks proposes that whatever their respective merits, the conservative world view is more conducive to happiness than the liberal one (in the American sense of both words). American conservatives tend to believe that if you work hard and play by the rules, you can succeed. This makes them more optimistic than liberals, more likely to feel in control of their lives and therefore happier. American liberals, at their most pessimistic, stress the injustice of the economic system, the crushing impersonal forces that keep the little guy down and what David Mamet, a playwright, recently summed up as the belief that “everything is always wrong”.


Not that anyone minds that they don't have kids.


Posted by Orrin Judd at March 27, 2008 3:32 PM
Comments

Ugh. That last paragraph you quote shows a stunning lack of insight, and disregards the obvious message of the previous paragraph. This is why I stopped reading the Economist--they don't get religion, and hence don't get America.

Posted by: b at March 27, 2008 4:26 PM

Are people happy because they do these things or do they do these things because they are happy?

These things = have children, go to church, etc.

Posted by: Mikey at March 27, 2008 5:13 PM
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