According to a 2004 Pew Research Center report Americans and Canadians are “the most satisfied people in the world.” We are substantially happier than citizens in other wealthy societies—particularly the countries of Western Europe whose citizens have much higher levels of pessimism for the future. So, let’s look some research on the values and beliefs of the happiest Americans to learn what these people believe.
For three decades the researchers at the University of Chicago have conducted the General Social Survey (GSS). Each year the researchers asked a representative sampling of American adults a series of questions including how happy they were. Because the survey covers a broad range of social and political topics researchers are able to segment the respondents by political orientation. The results were consistently clear about the political beliefs of the happiest Americans. For each and every one of those 30 years more political conservatives rated themselves as “very happy” than leftists.
In a 2006 study the Pew Research Center discovered that almost twice as many conservative Republicans said they were “very happy” as leftist Democrats (28% to 47%). In a 2007 Pew study three out of four Republicans (74%) with annual incomes under $50,000 said they were “pretty well satisfied” with their financial condition. But only about half as many Democrats in his income bracket (40%) were as satisfied with their personal finances. So, even “poor” conservatives are significantly happier than “poor” leftists.
Meta analysis on other research studies of the life satisfaction and political beliefs of citizens in eight foreign countries confirmed the conclusion from the American surveys; “Conservatives are happy and leftists are mad.”
What caused this “happiness gap”? When New York University psychologists Jaime Napier and John Jost studied the differences between leftists and conservatives they discovered that their average incomes and educational levels were about the same. The conservatives had substantially higher incidents of marriage, attended church more often, and gave a higher percentage of their time and income to charities. All of these behaviors are associated with higher levels of life satisfaction.
After conduction a multiple regression analysis to determine the contribution of each variable, the researchers discovered the source of the “happiness gap” between leftists and conservatives was their differing social/political values and beliefs.
According the GSS (and other surveys), American conservatives believe they live in a fairer more promising world than leftists. Conservatives value our individualistic, free market, democratic and capitalistic system. They know it isn’t perfect but still believe its best political system in the world.
They tend to be optimists and believe in their own ability to take care of themselves and the ones they love. Conservatives believe that if people work hard and play by the rules, they will become happy and successful. Because of this belief, they are confident that they can improve their quality of life through hard work and sacrifice. Their optimism encourages them to be proactive and resilient when facing adversity. This make them feel more competent and in control. These feelings of optimism, competence, and control over their lives contribute significantly to conservatives’ happiness and life satisfaction.
Conservatives understand that success and happiness have to be earned through education, hard work, and perseverance. They know that the key positive emotions of security, competence, autonomy, connectedness and self-esteem are the results of personal effort and can’t be “redistributed” by governments (or anyone else). As Benjamin Franklin said, “The Constitution only gives you’re the right to pursue happiness, you have to catch it yourself.”
Leftist’s See the World as “Half-Empty”
Leftists, in contrast, tend to be more pessimistic and focused on what’s wrong with our society instead of what’s right with it. They have been conditioned to see the glass as half-empty instead of half full. Many leftists believe, as Karl Marx did, that the capitalist system is inherently unfair and morally wrong. People on the far left believe that they and many other people are victims of social and economic injustices. Apparently, they compare the realities of our system with some utopian society that has never and will never exist. The perceived gap between the ideal society and the real world is a big source of distress for leftists.
No wonder most leftists rate themselves so low in happiness. Comparing a fantasy utopian society to a real society, seeing themselves as victims, and believing that government programs will make them happy are all beliefs that are proven to make people unhappy.
The Biggest Stressor—Income Inequality
Eventually Napier and Jost identified the one key belief that caused leftists the greatest angst—their concern for the perceived injustice of income inequality. In flourishing, capitalist societies the income gap between the rich and the poor has increased dramatically over the last 30 years. Both the rich and the poor increased their buying power over this time frame. But the income of the highest earners increased faster then the lowest earners.
Because of the rising prosperity of our nation, America’s “poor” live better than the majority of “middle-class” people in most of the world. In fact, the biggest health problem of America’s lower classes is obesity from overeating. Instead of celebrating the income gains and incredibly high living standard for America’s “poor”, leftists are angry that the incomes of the America’s wealthiest families are growing even faster. Why are they so upset that some people, in a free market economy, make so much more than others?
One academic theory says that inequality is bad for a society because it makes many people miserable. However, in America the income gap has increased over the past 30 years, but our average happiness has not changed. In international studies, income inequality was not a factor in happiness except where the country had a left-leaning government. Most Americans like the opportunities that they and their children have to create financial security or even great wealth for themselves.
However, there is one economic condition that is guaranteed to make everyone very unhappy: the lack of economic opportunity. Lack of opportunity destroys people’s optimism and saps their spirit. Lack of opportunity to fulfill their potential is the primary reason so many foreigners are willing to give up everything and risk their lives to come to America. When illegal aliens attempt to sneak in to America on rickety boats or treacherous desert crossings they are yearning for economic opportunity not for income equality.
Unfortunately, attempting to equalize incomes destroys incentives to work which eventually eliminates prosperity and opportunity. Unfortunately, everywhere it has been tried it eventually reduces everyone’s productivity. This is because paying everyone the same rewards unproductive workers and penalizes the productive ones. The workers in the old USSR had a saying that perfectly encapsulated this problem, “The government pretends to pay us and we pretend to work.” This Leftist political ideology ignores basic human nature and destroys wealth and happiness.
Just look at the dramatic difference in incomes, freedom, and happiness between North Korea and. South Korea; between the former East Germany and West Germany. After the Sandinistas seized power in Nicaragua and imposed their socialistic agenda of income equality (for everyone except the ruling class) the Gross Domestic Product, a measure of yearly output, plunged from $5,000 per person in 1977 to less then $485 today. Now more than 8 out of 10 Nicaraguans live on less than $1.00 a day. And the downward spiral is continuing.
The inevitable decline in productivity and economic output caused by leftist policies prompted Margaret Thatcher to observe, “The problem with socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money.”
A Faulty Foundation
I’m not saying there aren’t lots of things we could improve in our society. And I do believe we need a safety net for people who are temporarily in financial difficulties. However, after almost 100 years of experimenting with socialism and communism proves that “fixing” income equality leads to a downward spiral of poverty and despair for everyone. You can’t find one socialist country that is on an upward spiral of flourishing.
It’s important to realize that when Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, the field of psychology didn’t exist. Marx developed his political theories with almost no practical understanding of human nature. And he never actually worked a day in his life. His theories have been completely discredited everywhere they have been tried. But Marx’s theories still have a powerful hold on most leftists.
Besides reducing quality of life, freedom, and prosperity there is another huge problem with the Left’s preoccupation with income inequality; it encourages envy. The Encarta on-line dictionary defines envy as “the resentful or unhappy feeling of wanting somebody else’s success, good fortune, qualities, or possessions.” Envy is a negative emotion and one of the seven deadly sins. Trying to build a flourishing society on a foundation of negative emotions will never work. Negative emotions create downward spirals until the society eventually implodes in misery and poverty.
It’s important to note that the research results discussed above don’t say a conservative world view is “better” than a leftist world view—only that it leads to higher levels of happiness, freedom, prosperity, and life satisfaction. America’s exceptional history proves that traditional, hard working, family-oriented conservative values and beliefs lead to higher levels of prosperity and opportunities for all. The road to the good life is to ensure that each individual has equal opportunity not equal income.
Psychologists have discovered that we all have a “happiness set point” that is responsible for about 50% of our emotional state. We inherit that trait from our parents and can’t change it. Studies of identical twins proved that our life circumstances account for only about 10% of our happiness. But, our learned values, beliefs, and intentional behaviors are responsible for the remaining 40% of how we feel about our lives.
Leftists focus most of their attention on “fixing” the least important factor, life circumstances. That’s a flawed strategy. The fastest, easiest, and surest way to increase their happiness and life satisfaction is to upgrade their values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. If they really care about their well-being and the well-being of other people, leftists need to stop whining about how bad everything is. Then, they need to start studying the science of human flourishing to learn how the happiest, most successful Americans—us conservatives—think, what we value, and how we behave.
We’d all be a lot happier if leftists discarded their unhappy beliefs and embraced the values and beliefs that have made America the richest, most powerful, and most generous country the World has ever known.
[This article is written from research for the new book, “Endorphinomics: The Science of Human Flourishing” by Steve Moeller.]
Steve Moeller is passionate about helping people optimize their financial independence and quality of life. For over two decades, he has been a thought leader in the wealth management industry. Steve is an author of two books and over 100 articles, a workshop leader, and management consultant. He is an expert in personal finances, wealth management, retirement planning, and the science of human flourishing. He has trained thousands of investment advisors to help their clients prepare for and enjoy a flourishing retirement. Visit his website at endorphinzone.com.
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