The Politics of Happiness

If the political polls are correct, Republicans will be unhappy on election night, while Democrats will be blissful. But that will represent a reversal of the typical pattern, and not merely from election nights past. A Pew Research Center report assembles data new and old that show Republicans consistently more likely than Democrats to rate themselves as personally happy.

In Pew’s new polling, fielded earlier this month, 37 percent of Republicans characterized themselves as “very happy,” while 25 percent of Democrats did so. At the opposite end of the personal-happiness spectrum, 20 percent of Democrats described themselves as “not too happy,” vs. 9 percent of Republicans. The current findings are anything but an anomaly. In polling on this topic that dates back to the early 1970s, Republicans have always reported a higher incidence of happiness than Democrats. Moreover, the Republicans tend to be happier about a wide range of things, including some that have no obvious correlation with political orientation. For example, Pew mentions there’s data showing that Republicans like the weather better than Democrats do.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to have high incomes, and they’re also more likely to be married — two factors that correlate positively with happiness. But Pew’s regression analysis of the data finds that “even after setting aside all the demographic traits that separate partisans of the two parties, a Republican is still a bit more likely than a Democrat to be very happy.” That continues to be the case even after controlling for significant non-demographic factors like church attendance.

If people can correctly predict how they’ll feel five years from now, the gap is likely to persist. The report mentions a separate Pew survey, fielded this past winter, in which respondents were asked to gauge their level of “life satisfaction” in the past, present and future. Sixty-five percent of Republicans, vs. 56 percent of Democrats, predicted they’ll have a high level of such satisfaction five years from now. Then again, nearly all of this gap was accounted for by respondents who identified themselves as “upper class/upper-middle class” In this cohort, 79 percent of Republicans and 66 percent of Democrats forecast high levels of life satisfaction for themselves five years hence. Among those who termed themselves “middle class,” 62 percent of Republicans and 60 percent of Democrats expressed this expectation. In the “lower-middle class/lower class” grouping, 41 percent of Republicans and Democrats alike did so.