Thursday, October 21, 2021

Politics and Mental Health

Thomas Edsall finds a group of important papers on politics and psychology that show, from opposite perspectives, that conservatives are happier than liberals. (He doesn't get into this, but far left radicals are the least happy of all.) As he shows, you can interpret this divide according to your own politics. If you are a liberal, you argue that conservatives are better at ignoring injustice:

We consistently found conservatives (or right-wingers) are happier than liberals (or left-wingers). This ideological gap in happiness is not accounted for by demographic differences or by differences in cognitive style. We did find, however, that the rationalization of inequality — a core component of conservative ideology — helps to explain why conservatives are, on average, happier than liberals. . . . [This is] consistent with system justification theory, which posits that viewing the status quo (with its attendant degree of inequality) as fair and legitimate serves a palliative function. 
"Rationalization" is a great word for insulting people you disagree with; I reason, you rationalize. And you have to love that there is a whole body of "system justification theory." But anyway, conservative social scientists of course see this differently:

Conservatives score higher than liberals on personality and attitude measures that are traditionally associated with positive adjustment and mental health, including personal agency, positive outlook, transcendent moral beliefs, and generalized belief in fairness. These constructs, in turn, can account for why conservatives are happier than liberals and have declined less in happiness in recent decades. . . .

Conservatives are more satisfied with their lives, in general and in specific domains (e.g., marriage, job, residence), report better mental health and fewer mental and emotional problems, and view social justice in ways that are consistent with binding moral foundations, such as by emphasizing personal agency and equity.

I don't think it takes any fancy theorizing to understand this. Conservatives are, pretty much by definition, more comfortable with the world as it is, and less prone to thinking that it needs changing; liberals think it has glaring problems that require urgent action. Hence liberals worry more and feel more out of place. Also, some of the people who find the world as it is intolerable are going to be crazy, with the causality no doubt running in both directions; since these differences are not really that large, the existence of a small number of very unhappy radicals drives a good proportion of the difference. Not all of it, though; even moderate liberals with decent lives are a little less happy than conservatives. Edsall finds people who dispute this, but I think they are engaging in strange special pleading; the evidence we have points pretty clearly to conservatives being happier.

The deep importance of this finding is in pointing out once again that the political and psychological understandings of human life often diverge radically. I could not count the number of different ways I have seen liberals argue that people are unhappy because they world is unfair, and the only possible solution is to change the world. But according to some studies, the trait most strongly associated with happiness is acceptance. This only confirms a strain of old wisdom that exists all over the world: that the best route through life is to accept the world as it is and make the best of it, rather than railing against it. 

Random related psychological finding: if you don't, in the end, accept your losses, you never finish grieving.

Another thing that contributes to happiness is a sense of belonging. Which is why I am so ambivalent about nationalism. As a historian I understand very well that modern nations were manufactured and modern patriotism got up by political acts (including wars) and relentless propaganda. On the other hand, there is a lot of evidence that this works. National pride makes many people happy, and it also makes it much easier for them to participate in a democracy with people they disagree with. Where people don't feel at a deep level that they are part of a nation – which, again, is something created by propaganda – then democracy fails.

Plus, people just find change disturbing, and this is just as true for the poor as for the rich. Consider the reactions of poor people in cities when their neighborhoods start improving economically. Many see this as a threat, and they have dreamed up a whole body of pseudo theory called "gentrification" to justify/rationalize/explain those feelings.

But against the commonsense notion that if we all talked ourselves into being conservatives we would all be happier I would make two arguments: one, that the past just sucked for many people, from women trapped in abusive marriages to Untouchables. Two, that modern technological and economic progress are changing the world at such a rapid pace that the kind of conservatism we had in the early 1800s is simply no longer possible. So instead we get different ways of trying to reconcile conservative feelings with rapid change. Sometimes this is center-right parties that simply try to moderate change, but we also keep seeing right-wing movements that mingle conservative sentiments with various kinds of angry radicalism, giving us among other things World War II, perhaps the greatest catastrophe we humans ever inflicted on ourselves. Trying to be a conservative in a world of rapid change seems to come with its own costs.

Whenever I ponder these issues I end up thinking that the most plausible approach is balance. We should try to make the world better, but we should not exaggerate its horrors or believe that this or that change will radically improve anyone's life. We should participate in politics, but we should never tie our own happiness too strongly to the success of our faction. That gives things beyond our control too much power over us. There has to be an element of ourselves that we insulate from the world, a place where we focus on our own thoughts, our own beliefs, and the people closest to our hearts.


szopen said...

Very nice entry and I agree with most of it. Usually I do not comment just to say "I agree" and this time, actually, is not different - because I got interested in one sentence on this long entry of your. You said that modern nations were fabricated; can you elaborate? May understanding is that nations actually have quite long history, even if the national feelings sometimes were restricted. For example, the Czech medieval definition of a nation as people of the same blood, language and faith is - minus faith - surprisingly modern.

David said...

I was struck in Edsall's article that the definition of conservatism the researchers were using seemed very old-fashioned and not suited to the age of Trump. It sounded more appropriate to the age of Reagan, Billy Graham, and Norman Vincent Peale: religiosity, "personal agency, positive outlook, transcendent moral beliefs" (to quote one of Esdall's quotes from the main article he cites), small-town chamber of commerce values, clear meanings, Protestant work ethic, marriage, and family. That world has little to do with contemporary MAGAworld and Trumpism. The new Republican Party is about assault weapons, alternative facts, conspiracy theories, defiance of rules, performative rudeness, paranoia, and revenge fantasies.

I think Burkean or Reaganite conservatism is a bad lens through which to view the kind of right-wing rage that gave us World War II. It's also a bad lens through which to understand Trump and MAGA.

David said...

FWIW, I agree with John that nationalism makes many people happy. I detest it anyway. To me, its record is blood and misery. Beyond that, even once the blood and misery is done, I just don't like the world as nationalists seem to want it: all Czechs, and only Czechs, in the Czech Republic; all Serbs, and only Serbs, in Serbia; all Hindus, and only Hindus, in India; all Jews, and only Jews, in Israel. A world like that isn't a world for me.

szopen said...

@David you sound the same as people who are saying that record of religion is blood and misery, record of states is wars, capitalism brought only countless deaths. Moreover, you create strawman. There are many nationalisms, many varieties, some of which stress pan-ethnic loyalty to state ("Czechs are people who are loyal to Czech state"), some based on blood and exclusive ("Czechs are ethnic people").

John said...

@David- I confess myself puzzled by what movements like MAGA-ism or Fascism arise on the Right, and why people who consider themselves conservative (in the sense of the writers Edsall cites) support them. Once factor seems to be threat from the left: thus European fascism arose in a world where the Bolsheviks presented a real threat to everything old school conservatives supported. So they sides with a bunch of hard cases because they thought they needed some tough bastards on their side.

David said...


Sure, there are many nationalisms, and milder ones than the sort I'm citing. But I'm not creating a strawman. The violent, exclusionist sort that I'm describing is real and has had a powerful, indeed overwhelming, effect on history and current demography. History has made this "strawman" the living face of nationalism. I think it's up to more moderate nationalists to prove they can permanently block the more extreme sort.

szopen said...

@David I get your point and maybe it was unfair to accuse you of creating a strawman.

However, as usual with any ideology, it's the more extreme and violent factions which are most visibible. When moderate nationalists are successful, hardly anyone even notices they are nationalists. In my country I constantly got into people knowing history being surprised that some reveled figures were nationalists (in the very real sense of "being members of Polish National Democratic party"). Then there is a problem of definitions. Let's take De Gaulle. AFAIK he denied being nationalist and even expressed his dislike of nationalism - but at the same time I read few works which describe him as one - and indeed, when I read some of examples of his speeches and writings, to me they sound like just one flavour of the nationalism.

David said...


I'm puzzled as well. I do think any discussion that equates the right with Burkean conservatism is inadequate.

The current situation seems to me to have almost entirely thrown out traditional understandings of conservative and liberal when it comes to the partisan divide. Democrats are now the kids who sat in the front row, did their homework, and raised their hands at every question. Republicans sat in the back, kept their ball caps down (as I said in another post), and sulked. These images are the two parties' brands right now.

David said...


Yes, I agree De Gaulle was a nationalist, and IMHO, admirable in many respects.

But I think the demise of the old ethnic heterogeneity in places like Greece and Turkey is a terrible loss.