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Book Review

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Conservatives Happier Than Liberals

May 19th 2008

Logo - Gross National Happiness
Gross National Happiness

Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters for America--And How We Can Get More of It. Arthur C. Brooks. Basic Books. 277 pages. 

Conservatives are happier than liberals, according to a new book by Arthur C. Brooks entitled, "Gross National Happiness: Why Happiness Matters to America and How We Can Get More of It.”

"You find that all the way back to the early 1970s, as long as we've been keeping data on the subject, conservatives have consistently shown greater life satisfaction than liberals," say Brooks.

In one study, people who identified themselves as conservative were nearly twice as likely to say they were very happy as people who said they are liberal.

In contrast, Brooks says, "Liberals are less likely to be optimistic about the future, and they're more likely to say they feel like a failure." The question is, why?

About half the reason conservatives are happier than liberals is that they are more likely to attend a house of worship or be married. Such people tend to be happier anyway.

How each group see things accounts for the rest of the difference, says Brooks. “Conservatives have a more optimistic, hopeful worldview," he says.

Conservatives are not happier because they have more money. In fact, they are not necessarily better off financially than liberals.

Moreover, money doesn't necessarily make us happier, says Brooks, who is a Louis A. Bantle professor of business and government policy at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and Whitman School of Management.

What does make a difference is how money is acquired.

"Money correlates with a personal sense of success, and success buys happiness," Brooks says. "If you take two people and they feel equally successful, but one makes four times as much money as the other, they'll be equally happy. So money per se doesn't buy happiness, and it brings virtually no gain at all in life satisfaction unless it's earned. It's the earning part that makes all the difference, because that's when you feel like you create value."

Hitting the lottery buys happiness temporarily.

"Six months later, people who have won a lottery don't get any enjoyment from hanging out with friends or cooking or watching TV like they used to, and they're getting no happiness from the money, either," Brooks says. "So it's a mixed blessing to inherit money or hit the lottery."

The only way money buys happiness is when people give it away.

"I tell people they can buy happiness by writing a check for $1,000 to their church or synagogue or favorite charity," he says.

The trickier question is why conservatives—who are about the same as Republicans when it comes to outlook—are happier than liberals. About 50 percent of the differences between liberals and conservatives stem from genetically inherited personality traits. The rest of the difference has to do with worldview.

"Generally speaking, conservatives come in two kinds: those that have conservative political beliefs throughout their lives, and those that adopt them by about the time they are in their early 30s," Brooks says. "And you find the people who adopt conservative beliefs rather than grow up with them are people with more education. They grow up in a liberal household and are more likely to go to college. When people go to college, when people have more opportunities in life, when they become more hopeful, they get happier, and at the same time they're getting more conservative."

The rest of the explanation for why liberals are not as happy as conservatives has to do with freedom.

"What you find is that freedom, including economic freedom, religious freedom, and political freedom, push happiness up hugely," Brooks says, "But more voluntary personal freedom about morality drives happiness down."

Thus, if the government limits moral freedom, it reduces happiness because it limits political freedom. "But what you find is when people voluntarily limit their own moral freedom by saying they think premarital sex is wrong, taking drugs is wrong, or abortion is wrong, they're much happier people," says Brooks, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

The most difficult question is whether people who tend to be happier become conservatives or the other way around.

"People, as they get conservative, get happier, and as they get happier, they also get more conservative," Brooks says. "They get happier as they get more conservative because they adopt a worldview that says that things are possible through hard work, and that mobility is not just a hollow promise."

Brooks says that the fact that conservatives are by nature more self-reliant is an important factor.

"It's unseemly for conservatives to say, ‘Woe is me; I'm a victim; the world's oppressing me,’" he says. "Conservatives aren't supposed to say that. One of the fundamental tenets of the conservative character is to strike out on your own, to try to chase after your own fate. Just doing that will make you happier. You're also more likely to become a successful person if you take that course."

New York Times bestselling author Ronald Kessler is chief Washington correspondent of www.Newsmax.com.


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