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.