Thursday, June 19, 2008

Do your political views make you unhappy?

In his book, “Gross National Happiness”, Arthur Brooks cites compelling evidence that Americans who label themselves as conservatives are nearly twice as likely to say they are very happy as those who label themselves as liberals. This gap which has persisted for 35 years cannot be explained by income differences and apparently can only be explained in part by demographic factors such as religion and marriage.

As indicated previously (here) I am interested in the question of whether this finding also applies to other countries.

The gap between the happiness of those on the left and right of the political spectrum does not seem to be as large in Australia as in the United States. Data from the World Values Survey for 1995 (obtained by using the excellent facility available here to obtain cross-tabs online) suggest that those who self-positioned themselves on the left of the political spectrum in Australia (codes 1 to 4 on a 10 point scale) in that year were about 4 percentage points less likely to report being satisfied with life than the rest of the population (75 percent rather than 79 percent).

However, there is some evidence that political views are associated with substantial impacts on the probability of happiness in many countries. A study that I have undertaken covering 69 countries involved calculating a political index and assessing to what extent this index was capable of explaining differences in the proportions of the populations were are satisfied with life. The political index was calculated for each country from published data on percentages who self-position themselves on the left (assigned a value of 1) centre (assigned a value of 2) and right (assigned a value of 3). The index values range from 1.5 to 2.6 with an average of 2.1. Multiple regression was used to explain the percentage who were satisfied with life in terms of this political index and two control variables (per capita income level and percentage who attend religious services once a month or more). (Data were for the year 2000 and have been sourced from “Human Beliefs and Values” by Ronald Inglehart et al.)

The results suggest that an increase of 0.1 in this political index ( e.g. from the level in Britain of 1.9 to 2.0 – the same as for Australia) would be associated with an increase in percentage of people satisfied with life of about 2 percentage points (i.e. an increase from 73 to 75 percent of people being satisfied with life - sufficient to halve the gap between Britain and Australia in the percentage of people who are satisfied with life).

What are the implications of the finding that people who self-position themselves on the left of politics tend to be less satisfied with life than other people. In one sense it is hardly surprising that lefties should profess to be less satisfied with life than others. After all, their dissatisfaction may provide a motive for them to propose radical change. At the same time, however, it seems likely that those who self-position themselves on the left may have beliefs and frames of mind that cause them to have different feelings about objective circumstances. In my next post I will look at some evidence about the effect of self-positioning on the political scale on responses to income inequality.

(Research presented on this blog – as on any other blog - should be viewed with more caution than peer-reviewed research presented in academic journals. For quality assurance purposes I am prepared to make detailed results of research available to anyone who wants them and the data available to anyone who wants to replicate studies.)

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