• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Conservatives say they’re happier, but liberals act happier. Here's why

Photo/Getty Images

Much of the work on happiness is based on surveys, but what happens if we examine what people actually do?

You can’t tell to look at me, but I have done time on telly. I did the voiceovers and everything. I got to see how TV is made, and realised a lot of misconceptions I had about the process. I also got to chat with legendary producer Cass Avery. Among other things, she worked on TVNZ’s satirical Eating Media Lunch, which she said received more Broadcasting Standards Authority complaints than any other show at that time.

I was reminded of this during a conversation with a recent visitor to our shores, Peter Ditto of the University of California, Irvine. We were speculating about the intersection of humour and politics.

In Ditto’s US context, there are liberal-leaning TV comedy shows that poke fun at political conservatives and a much smaller number of shows that poke fun solely at liberals. Does this mean, I wondered, that there are political differences in senses of humour? I don’t think New Zealand has TV comedy that’s so polarised. Three’s 7 Days, for example, seems to go in for more equal-opportunity ribbing of people from across the political landscape.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

We don’t really know much about senses of humour and politics, but Ditto has spent a lot of time looking at whether political liberals and conservatives are psychologically different in other domains.

Happiness is one of those domains that may overlap with humour. There’s a small but robust relationship between a person’s political orientation and how happy they say they are. Specifically, the more politically conservative you feel you are, the happier you tend to claim to be.

Indeed, I find the same thing in New Zealand. The more people agree with the “conservative” position on both economic and social issues, the happier they say they are. The more they self-identify as conservative or right-wing, the happier they say they are. And if they say they vote for National or Act, they say they’re happier than people who say they vote for Labour or the Green Party.

However, this is how happy people say they are. Ditto and his colleagues have done research using a variety of methods to see if conservatives really are happier than liberals.

Peter Ditto. Photo/Supplied

Much of this work is based on people answering questions in surveys. What happens if we examine what people actually do? Ditto’s team looked at several objective indices of happiness and positive emotion and found the conservative happiness gap may not translate to real life.

For example, independent analysis of official photos of Republican and Democrat politicians shows that Democrats tend to have more “real” smiles than their conservative counterparts. Real smiles engage muscles that are automatic – around the eyes – and can’t be faked.

When I looked at our parliamentary website, I couldn’t spot too many obviously fake smiles, even from those I consider grumpy automatons. Ditto’s analysis of “emotion words” in tweets by people who follow either the Republican Party or the Democratic Party also showed Democratic supporters used more positive emotion words than their gloomier counterparts.

So, conservatives say they’re happier, but liberals act happier. Why the discrepancy? Ditto says there’s a third variable: what research calls self-deceptive enhancement or, more colloquially, how much you kid yourself that you’re cool. When you measure people’s predisposition to self-enhance, you find that the happiness gap goes away or, in some places, even flips around. In New Zealand, the difference disappears.

Before the liberals start crowing, self-enhancement is also associated with important things such as self-esteem, and it’s argued that it’s protective to see the world – and your place in it – through rose-tinted glasses. It’s also unclear whether the happiness you feel because you’re deluded is any less real than the liberal happiness that comes in spite of worrying that you’re not cool.

This article was first published in the April 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.