The Happiness Gap Between Left and Right Isn’t Closing

Thomas B. Edsall
By Thomas B. Edsall,Mr. Edsall contributes a weekly column from Washington, D.C., on politics, demographics and inequality.

Why is it that a substantial body of social science research finds that conservatives are happier than liberals?

A partial answer: Those on the right are less likely to be angered or upset by social and economic inequities, believing that the system rewards those who work hard, that hierarchies are part of the natural order of things and that market outcomes are fundamentally fair.

Those on the left stand in opposition to each of these assessments of the social order, prompting frustration and discontent with the world around them.

The happiness gap has been with us for at least 50 years, and most research seeking to explain it has focused on conservatives. More recently, however, psychologists and other social scientists have begun to dig deeper into the underpinnings of liberal discontent — not only unhappiness but also depression and other measures of dissatisfaction.

One of the findings emerging from this research is that the decline in happiness and in a sense of agency is concentrated among those on the left who stress matters of identity, social justice and the oppression of marginalized groups.

There is, in addition, a parallel phenomenon taking place on the right as Donald Trump and his MAGA loyalists angrily complain of oppression by liberals who engage in a relentless vendetta to keep Trump out of the White House.

There is a difference in the way the left and right react to frustration and grievance. Instead of despair, the contemporary right has responded with mounting anger, rejecting democratic institutions and norms.

In a 2021 Vox article, “Trump and the Republican Revolt Against Democracy,” Zack Beauchamp described in detail the emergence of destructive and aggressive discontent among conservatives.

Citing a wide range of polling data and academic studies, Beauchamp found:

  • More than twice as many Republicans (39 percent) as Democrats (17 percent) believed that “if elected leaders won’t protect America, the people must act — even if that means violence.”
  • Fifty-seven percent of Republicans considered Democrats to be “enemies,” compared with 41 percent of Democrats who viewed Republicans as “enemies.”
  • Among Republicans, support for “the use of force to defend our way of life,” as well as for the belief that “strong leaders bend rules” and that “sometimes you have to take the law in your own hands,” grows stronger in direct correlation with racial and ethnic hostility.

Trump has repeatedly warned of the potential for political violence. In January he predicted bedlam if the criminal charges filed in federal and state courts against him damaged his presidential campaign:

I think they feel this is the way they’re going to try and win, and that’s not the way it goes. It’ll be bedlam in the country. It’s a very bad thing. It’s a very bad precedent. As we said, it’s the opening of a Pandora’s box.

Before he was indicted in New York, Trump claimed there would be “potential death and destruction” if he was charged.

At an Ohio campaign rally in March, Trump declared, “If I don’t get elected, it’s going to be a blood bath for the whole country.”

In other words, Trump and his allies respond to adversity and what they see as attacks from the left with threats and anger, while a segment of the left often but not always responds to adversity and social inequity with dejection and sorrow.

There are significant consequences for this internalization.

Jamin Halberstadt, a professor of psychology at the University of Otago in New Zealand and a co-author of “Outgroup Threat and the Emergence of Cohesive Groups: A Cross-Cultural Examination,” argued in his emailed reply to my inquiry that because “a focus on injustice and victimhood is, by definition, disempowering (isn’t that why we talk of ‘survivors’ rather than ‘victims’?), loss of control is not good for self-esteem or happiness.”

But, he pointed out:

this focus, while no doubt a part of the most visible and influential side of progressive ideology, is still just a part. Liberalism is a big construct, and I’m reluctant to reduce it to a focus on social justice issues. Some liberals have this view, but I suspect their influence is outsized because (a) they have the social media megaphone and (b) we are in a climate in which freedom of expression and, in particular, challenges to the worldview you characterize have been curtailed.

Expanding on this line of argument, Halberstadt wrote:

I’m sure some self-described liberals have views that are counterproductive to their own happiness. One sub-ideology associated with liberalism is, as you describe, a sense of victimhood and grievance. But there is more than one way to respond to structural barriers. Within that group of the aggrieved, some probably see systemic problems that cannot be overcome, and that’s naturally demoralizing and depressing. But others see systemic problems as a challenge to overcome.

Taking Halberstadt’s assessment of the effects of grievance and victimhood a step farther, Timothy A. Judge, the chairman of the department of management and human resources at Notre Dame, wrote in a 2009 paper, “Core Self-Evaluations and Work Success”:

Core self-evaluations (C.S.E.) is a broad, integrative trait indicated by self-esteem, locus of control, generalized self-efficacy and (low) neuroticism (high emotional stability).

Individuals with high levels of C.S.E. perform better on their jobs, are more successful in their careers, are more satisfied with their jobs and lives, report lower levels of stress and conflict, cope more effectively with setbacks and better capitalize on advantages and opportunities.

I asked Judge and other scholars a question: Have liberal pessimists fostered an outlook that spawns unhappiness as its adherents believe they face seemingly insurmountable structural barriers?

Judge replied by email:

I do share the perspective that a focus on status, hierarchies and institutions that reinforce privilege contributes to an external locus of control. And the reason is fairly straightforward. We can only change these things through collective and, often, policy initiatives — which tend to be complex, slow, often conflictual and outside our individual control.

On the other hand, if I view “life’s chances” (Virginia Woolf’s term) to be mostly dependent on my own agency, this reflects an internal focus, which will often depend on enacting initiatives largely within my control.

Judge elaborated on his argument:

Yancey tested this theory using data collected in the 2021 Baylor Religion Survey of 1,232 respondents.

“Certain types of political progressive ideology can have contrasting effects on well-being,” Yancey wrote. “It is plausible that identity politics may explain the recent increase well-being gap between conservatives and progressives.”

Oskari Lahtinen, a senior researcher in psychology at the University of Turku in Finland, published a study in March, “Construction and Validation of a Scale for Assessing Critical Social Justice Attitudes,” that reinforces Yancey’s argument.

Lahtinen conducted two surveys of a total of 5,878 men and women to determine the share of Finnish citizens who held “critical social justice attitudes” and how those who held such views differed from those who did not.

Critical social justice proponents, on Lahtinen’s scale,

point out varieties of oppression that cause privileged people (e.g., male, white, heterosexual, cisgender) to benefit over marginalized people (e.g., woman, Black, gay, transgender).

In critical race theory, some of the core tenets include that (1) white supremacy and racism are omnipresent and colorblind policies are not enough to tackle them, (2) people of color have their own unique standpoint and (3) races are social constructs.

What did Lahtinen find?

The critical social justice propositions encountered

strong rejection from men. Women expressed more than twice as much support for the propositions. In both studies, critical social justice was correlated modestly with depression, anxiety, and (lack of) happiness, but not more so than being on the political left was.

In an email responding to my inquiries about his paper, Lahtinen wrote that one of the key findings in his research was that “there were large differences between genders in critical social justice advocacy: Three out of five women but only one out of seven men expressed support for the critical social justice claims.”

In addition, he pointed out, “there was one variable in the study that closely corresponded to external locus of control: ‘Other people or structures are more responsible for my well-being than I myself am.’”

The correlation between agreement with this statement and unhappiness was among the strongest in the survey:

People on the left endorsed this item (around 2 on a scale of 0 to 4) far more than people on the right (around 0.5). Endorsing the belief was determined by political party preference much more than by gender, for instance.

Such measures as locus of control, self-esteem, a belief in personal agency and optimism all play major roles in daily life.

In a December 2022 paper, “The Politics of Depression: Diverging Trends in Internalizing Symptoms Among U.S. Adolescents by Political Beliefs,” Catherine GimbroneLisa M. BatesSeth Prins and Katherine M. Keyes, all at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, noted that “trends in adolescent internalizing symptoms diverged by political beliefs, sex and parental education over time, with female liberal adolescents experiencing the largest increases in depressive symptoms, especially in the context of demographic risk factors, including parental education.”

“These findings,” they added, “indicate a growing mental health disparity between adolescents who identify with certain political beliefs. It is therefore possible that the ideological lenses through which adolescents view the political climate differentially affect their mental well-being.”

Gimbrone and her co-authors based their work on studies of 85,000 teenagers from 2005 to 2018. They found that

while internalizing symptom scores worsened over time for all adolescents, they deteriorated most quickly for female liberal adolescents. Beginning in approximately 2010 and continuing through 2018, female liberal adolescents reported the largest changes in depressive affect, self-esteem, self-derogation and loneliness.

In conclusion, the authors wrote, “socially underprivileged liberals reported the worst internalizing symptom scores over time, likely indicating that the experiences and beliefs that inform a liberal political identity are ultimately less protective against poor mental health than those that inform a conservative political identity.”

From another vantage point, Nick Haslam, a professor of psychology at the University of Melbourne, argued in his 2020 paper “Harm Inflation: Making Sense of Concept Creep” that recent years have seen “a rising sensitivity to harm within at least some Western cultures, such that previously innocuous or unremarked phenomena were increasingly identified as harmful and that this rising sensitivity reflected a politically liberal moral agenda.”

As examples, Haslam wrote that the definition of “trauma” has been

progressively broadened to include adverse life events of decreasing severity and those experienced vicariously rather than directly. “Mental disorder” came to include a wider range of conditions, so that new forms of psychopathology were added in each revision of diagnostic manuals and the threshold for diagnosing some existing forms was lowered. “Abuse” extended from physical acts to verbal and emotional slights and incorporated forms of passive neglect in addition to active aggression.

Haslam described this process as concept creep and argued that “some examples of concept creep are surely the work of deliberate actors who might be called expansion entrepreneurs.”

Concept expansion, Haslam wrote, “can be used as a tactic to amplify the perceived seriousness of a movement’s chosen social problem.” In addition, “such expansion can be effective means of enhancing the perceived seriousness of a social problem or threat by increasing the perceived prevalence of both ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators.’”

Haslam cited studies showing that strong “correlates of holding expansive concepts of harm were compassion-related trait values, left-liberal political attitudes and forms of morality associated with both.” Holding expansive concepts of harm was also “associated with affective and cognitive empathy orientation and most strongly of all with endorsement of harm- and fairness-based morality.” Many of these characteristics are associated with the political left.

“The expansion of harm-related concepts has implications for acceptable self-expression and free speech,” Haslam wrote. “Creeping concepts enlarge the range of expressions judged to be unacceptably harmful, thereby increasing calls for speech restrictions. Expansion of the harm-related concepts of hate and hate speech exemplifies this possibility.”



While much of the commentary on the progressive left has been critical, Haslam takes a more ambivalent position: “Sometimes concept creep is presented in an exclusively negative frame,” he wrote, but that fails to address the “positive implications. To that end, we offer three positive consequences of the phenomenon.”

The first is that expansionary definitions of harm “can be useful in drawing attention to harms previously overlooked. Consider the vertical expansion of abuse to include emotional abuse.”

Second, “concept creep can prevent harmful practices by modifying social norms.” For example, “changing definitions of bullying that include social exclusion and antagonistic acts expressed horizontally rather than only downward in organizational hierarchies may also entrench norms against the commission of destructive behavior.”

And finally:

The expansion of psychology’s negative concepts can motivate interventions aimed at preventing or reducing the harms associated with the newly categorized behaviors. For instance, the conceptual expansion of addiction to include behavioral addictions (e.g., gambling and internet addictions) has prompted a flurry of research into treatment options, which has found that a range of psychosocial treatments can be successfully used to treat gambling, internet and sexual addictions.

Judge suggested an approach to this line of inquiry that he believed might offer a way for liberalism to regain its footing:

I would like to think that there is a version of modern progressivism that accepts many of the premises of the problem and causes of inequality but does so in a way that also celebrates the power of individualism, of consensus and of common cause.

I know this is perhaps naïve. But if we give in to cynicism (that consensus can’t be found), that’s self-reinforcing, isn’t it? I think about the progress on how society now views sexual orientation and the success stories. The change was too slow, painful for many, but was there any other way?

May 8, 2024

Excerpts: New York times

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