A Recipe for the Pursuit of Happiness

Arthur C. Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute penned a July 7 New York Times op-ed, “Why Conservatives Are Happier Than Liberals”.

Many conservatives favor an explanation focusing on lifestyle differences, such as marriage and faith. They note that most conservatives are married; most liberals are not. (The percentages are 53 percent to 33 percent, according to my calculations using data from the 2004 General Social YNSurvey, and almost none of the gap is due to the fact that liberals tend to be younger than conservatives.) Marriage and happiness go together. If two people are demographically the same but one is married and the other is not, the married person will be 18 percentage points more likely to say he or she is very happy than the unmarried person.

The story on religion is much the same. According to the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, conservatives who practice a faith outnumber religious liberals in America nearly four to one. And the link to happiness? You guessed it. Religious participants are nearly twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives as are secularists (43 percent to 23 percent). The differences don’t depend on education, race, sex or age; the happiness difference exists even when you account for income.

Whether religion and marriage should make people happy is a question you have to answer for yourself. But consider this: Fifty-two percent of married, religious, politically conservative people (with kids) are very happy — versus only 14 percent of single, secular, liberal people without kids. [Emphasis added.]


Note that many married, religious, politically conservative people (with kids) were once single, secular, liberal people without kids.

Liberals, Brooks says, observe that “…there is an entire academic literature in the social sciences dedicated to showing conservatives as naturally authoritarian, dogmatic, intolerant of ambiguity, fearful of threat and loss, low in self-esteem and uncomfortable with complex modes of thinking.” So much for social “science”, which seems in this one sentence to be more about confirmation of left wing dogma than a scientific examination of the belief systems.

In reality, the difference seems to lie in conservatives’ worldview of personal responsibility and individual control over outcomes, versus a typical liberal worldview of a the individual as helpless and subject to the whims of various power structures, whether it be “management”, “the government”, “the rich”, “fascists”, etc.

And the characterization of conservatives as selfish, unfeeling misers is further punctured by Brooks’ research. From his Wikipedia page:

Brooks argues that there are three cultural values that best predict charitable giving: religious participation, political views, and family structure. Ninety-one percent of people who identify themselves as religious are likely to give to charity, writes Brooks, as opposed to 66 percent of people who do not. The religious giving sector is just as likely to give to secular programs as it is to religious causes. Those who think government should do more to redistribute income are less likely to give to charitable causes, and those who believe the government has less of a role to play in income redistribution tend to give more. Finally, people who couple and raise children are more likely to give philanthropically than those who do not. The more children there are in a family, the more likely that a family will donate to charity. One of Brooks’s most controversial findings was that political conservatives give more, despite having incomes that are on average 6 percent lower than liberals. [Emphasis added.]


My wife and I have found that the first step to feeling happy is often to act happy. Are you an unhappy single, secular, liberal person? Do you want to feel happy? You could try the following recipe; it worked for me, and I didn’t even get all of the steps in the recommended order:

  1. Find religion.
  2. Become generous.
  3. Commit to a spouse.
  4. Be fruitful and multiply.
  5. Become conservative. (Last, because most people become more conservative after having kids, even if conservatism is not in their nature.)

There are no guarantees, but Brooks’ research would indicate that success increases your chance of being happy by almost 300%. All of these steps may not be achievable by all people, but what is a more noble way to spend ones life than the pursuit of happiness?

Cross-posted at Maley’s Energy Blog.


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