Happy Conservatives

At Freakonomics, Arthur Brooks on why conservatives seem happier:

In my last post I showed the large happiness differences between religious Americans and secularists, and argued that this is a big part of the reason conservatives are so much happier than liberals. But I also noted that religion and other lifestyle distinctions still only explain about half the gap. …

In my book I argue that conservatives are more optimistic about the future than liberals are, and believe in each individual’s ability to get ahead on the basis of achievement. Liberals are more likely to see themselves and others as victims of circumstance and oppression, and doubt whether individuals can climb without governmental help.

I wonder:

  • Would you or I be happier if we let ourselves think more conservatively, such as by attending church more and believing we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps?
  • Would society be happier if we encouraged more conservative thoughts?
  • If so, who wants such outcomes?  (Or, are they good outcomes?)

Me, I want to believe whatever is true even if that makes me unhappy.  And with that attitude, I doubt attending church would make me happier.

Added 13May: Tyler suggests "Robin could play up the relatively conservative thoughts he already believes in."  But playing up particular beliefs will give them more weight in my mind, and move me more to similar beliefs. 

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  • Dr. Zeuss

    “I want to believe whatever is true even if that makes me unhappy.”


  • T.

    What is true is already so.
    Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse.
    Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away.
    And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with.
    Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived.
    People can stand what is true,
    for they are already enduring it.

    Eugene Gendlin

  • Cf this Eliezer Yudkowsky post about why it is always a mistake to pull the wool over your own eyes, because you cannot correctly assess the cost/benefits of doing so.

  • Better to be Socrates unsatisfied…

  • Dr, we don’t choose most of our wants.

    T, Eugene is eloquent but wrong – we can feel worse owning up to unpleasant truths.

    Paul, even if you can’t pull wool over your eyes you can not try as hard to find and remove other wool.

  • Voltaire

    A person’s beliefs do not make one happy. It is their outlook.

    For example: “The world is controlled by greedy, evil, violent, hateful sociopaths. Humanity is doomed. I will now go and somberly ruminate on the futility of my existence.”
    “The world is controlled by greedy, evil, violent, hateful sociopaths. But tyrants come and go. Humanity is thousands of times better off than it was 500 years ago and things will certainly get better eventually”

  • Joseph Buck


    Eliezer quoted those lines from Eugene with approval. Do you or he have any thoughts on why you disagree about the validity of those words?


  • Dustin

    I’m happier when I’m drunk than I am when I’m sober. It would still be stupid to suggest that I start drinking more than I already do.

    Optimism is good in moderation, but when carried to such an extreme that it renders the optimist immune to facts and circumstances, it becomes dangerous… and leads to quagmires in the desert, a healthcare system which drives Americans into bankruptcy, and rampant, careless deregulation of industries and lenders.

  • Me, I want to believe whatever is true even if that makes me unhappy.

    Why? Are you aware of any good argument for the conclusion that we have (non-instrumental) reasons for believing the truth?

  • Z. M. Davis

    There’s more to life than happiness, Pablo.

  • There’s more to life than happiness, Pablo.

    I never claimed that happiness is all that matters. I just asked Robin whether he thinks there are reasons to believe that truth has intrinsic value. A sincere truth-seeker cannot avoid asking himself that question.

  • Owning up to the truth can certainly make you unhappier, especially if you make any mistakes at all in how your mind is configured to handle it. That’s not the same as making worse whatever you were owning up to.

    150,000 people die every day. If I believed they had souls, I would be happier. But I’ve chosen a different road to improving the way I feel about this world.

    I’m not asking which is the better road. I’m looking for the best road. The optimal path, I think, does not involve believing lies.

  • Overcoming Laziness
  • Eliezer, I think we should accept that the optimal path may well not be the max happiness path. In any case, my claims are mainly about typical people in typical situations – we should be able to agree there that truth often makes people unhappy. It is much harder to say much with confidence about the optimal path.

    Pablo, Dr asked me that same question and I answered – for more follow the “or” link above.

  • Ian C.

    I find the truth makes me happier. A world without God that operates purely by cause and effect is a world I can achieve my goals in, because all I need to do is enact the right cause. But a world where God controls things, or people’s wishes and prayers do, is a nightmare because anything could happen making it impossible to plan ahead and achieve.

  • Adirian

    I think the movie Serenity does a very good job of summing the two groups up. One group thinks people are just fine the way they are. And one group thinks people are a broken thing to be fixed. (And I think Serenity also does a very good job of summing up how “fixing” people ends up.)

    One group is happy – their ideal has already been met. One group is unhappy, because they think people are in some fashion broken, and need to be fixed and/or controlled.

  • Nick Tarleton

    I just asked Robin whether he thinks there are reasons to believe that truth has intrinsic value. A sincere truth-seeker cannot avoid asking himself that question.

    Can all intrinsic values be justified? Does happiness need reasons to be valuable?

  • “Would society be happier if we encouraged more conservative thoughts?”

    No we would be happier if we pursued pleasure a la Epicurus.


  • If you believe that certain outcomes are good and others are evil, then you must assign a high (instrumental) value to “truth”, where “truth” means having an accurate model of the relationship between causes and effects, because without truth you are unable to effect a good outcome or to avoid an evil outcome. In fact, it probably takes more study and reflection than most workers have done just to acquire the ability to do creative work in, say, advanced technology without inadvertently doing evil — largely because partisan loyalty oaths are regarded by the educated class worldwide as deep moral truths.

  • “Happiness”: “pleasure resulting from attaining one’s goals” (to condense a definition from the OED that seems to fit the above discussion).

    I went to the dictionary, because “happiness” means about as much to me as “phlogiston”. Satisfaction or dissatisfaction with particular things, yes, but the idea of an aggregate measure that is axiomatically supposed to be worth pursuing does not fit anything in my experience. In the cited blog postings, Arthur Brooks means “the thing that people mean, when they say where they are on a scale called ‘happiness'”. What is the thing that people mean, when they point to a burning log and say “see the phlogiston coming out”?

    That said, pleasure from attaining one’s goals can be obtained in two ways: attaining one’s goals, or changing the goals to match one’s attainment. Most of the above discussion has been about the tension between these. But goals have subgoals, and one usually achieves large goals by changing the subgoals as necessary. (You are driving to work: the road is blocked: so you take a different road.) The two methods are not general approaches. We all do both of them all the time, even those who strive for the goal of having no goals.

    What is this aggregate “happiness”, that one would care to maximise it?

  • Robin, if you really wanted to believe the truth, you would want to believe the truth about whether you have reasons for believing the truth. If you then concluded that you have no such reasons, you’ll be in a situation in which (a) you want something and (b) you believe you have no reason to get this thing. Your want would then be vulnerable to rational criticism, and the same systematic tendency that causes you to want to believe the truth would cause you to bring your wants in tune with your reasons. As a consequence, you will eventually cease to want to believe the truth.

    Nick, the question is whether you have reasons for believing the truth. You can’t be justified in believing the truth if you have no reasons for believing it, since to be justified in something is, in the relevant sense, to have reasons for this thing.

  • Z. M. Davis

    Pablo, you seem to be working under the conception that terminal values need reasons–but why should they? Your chain of instrumental values has to bottom out somewhere, if we are not to have an infinite regress. Why do I prefer understanding over delusion? Why do I prefer to live rather than to die? I just do; there need not be any deeper reason.

  • Caledonian

    Z. M. Davis: the reason is natural selection. You prefer to live rather than die because the ancestor-patterns that preferred otherwise were less likely to perpetuate themselves, and so you are more likely to have inherited those tendencies than not.

  • Z. M. Davis

    Well, yes, of course that’s the cause, but it’s not a justification–“Adaptation-executers,” &c. If you’re going to gratuitously drag in evopsych when it’s not relevant, you might as well just go all the way and say that the only “reason” anyone does anything is that they’re branches of an amplitude distribution that develops in such a manner.

  • Caledonian

    We might as well say that ‘justification’ is only a concept that applies when things are being done with the intention of reaching a goal. Evolution has no intentions and no goals, and so the things it does can’t be said to require justification. They just are.

    Once we’re reduced our chain of reasoning to our most basic desires, it’s fruitless to look for justification, because there isn’t any.

  • Z. M., you seem to be conflating explanatory and justificatory reasons. My question concerns only the latter, for which the question of a vicious regress does not arise. If you have justificatory reasons for something, you don’t need a justification for the fact that you have reason for this thing.

    Questions such as “Why do I need reasons?”, when the reasons in question are justificatory, make no sense to me. They are just rhetorical attempts to justify your doing what you have no reasons for doing. That’s just not possible.

  • Nick Tarleton

    Pablo, do you have reasons for desiring happiness?

  • Nick, no, I don’t have reasons for desiring happiness. I have reasons for experiencing happiness.

  • David

    At least in America, conservatives tend to be the ones whose lives are well-accepted and integrated into society. If someone is marginalized by society, it’s hard for them to remain a conservative. Yet, leaving conservatism doesn’t immediately fix the society that marginalizes them, so they’re still left unhappy.

    People become liberals because of their unhappy circumstances, so it’s no surprise that conservatives — a group defined by support for the status quo — are happier with their lives in the status quo.

  • Z. M. Davis

    I’m confused, Pablo. Could you try rephrasing why the question of a regress doesn’t arise with justificatory reasons?

    Are we defining our terms in different ways? By explanatory reasons, I understand reasons that explain the causal processes of how something came to be: here evopsych, physics, and the like would be relevant. By justificatory reasons, I understand reasons the justify a particular value or course of action within some given goal structure or system of morals.

    When we ask “Why do you want X?” the justificatory answer can be “X is an end in itself” or “X is a means for acquiring Y.” If the latter, we can ask “Why do you want Y?”, and the answer can be “Y is an end in itself” or “Y is a means for acquiring Z.” If the latter …

  • Kyle Vass

    Show me the money! The correlation between income and political affiliation is an obvious missing link here. Are people happy because they are conservative or conservative because they are happy? Causation is an important element in understanding this phenomenon and I would argue that political affiliation is largely determined by their standard of living.

    In America’s 1-dimensional politics we call democrats liberals and republicans conservatives but this dichotomy is such an oversimplification of the human belief system that it offers very little insight as to why one person chooses one party or the other.

    Ultimately, political affiliation is a mere after-thought to one’s lifestyle and belief system. Naturally people who are currently content with their lives are going to identify with the party that is currently responsible. Whereas people who identify themselves as unhappy are going to have reasons for being unhappy. I would argue that most people who define themselves as democrats in this country have seen an exponential decrease in their standards of living.

    But be careful when generalizing about belief structures. I’m sure this study would reflect completely opposite data if conducted with the populous (aristocracy and proletariat alike) if conducted after the French Revolution for example.

  • Professor Hanson was just channeling Jesus Christ, who taught “you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.”

  • Z. M., I meant to ask Robin whether he believed there are non-instrumental, justificatory reasons for believing the truth. As you recognize in your latest comment, these reasons need not lead to an infinite regress. Only instrumental reasons do.

  • Z. M. Davis

    Pablo, do you think there are any noninstrumental, justificatory reasons for anything? I don’t.

  • @Pablo S

    Robin carefully says he “wants” to know the truth. Doesn’t this make his position clear?

  • Sister Y

    a. Robin’s data for conservatives being happier relies exclusively on self-report. Within evangelical Christianity, there is a widespread custom known as “witnessing,” which means that Christians are expected to act happy and seem perfect in order to “witness” to the pagan masses as to how happy Christianity makes one. This custom is also widespread among other socially conservative movements that are not in alignment with truth, such as Amway. So they may not actually be happier – they may merely be lying. (There is also the problem of lying to oneself about one’s happiness – I know you guys hate David Benatar, but he devotes an entire chapter to this in Better Never to have Been.)

    b. “X group is happier” is a much different observation than “adopting X characteristic will make Y group happier.” The data on lottery winners and spinal injury accident victims seem to argue against the idea that changes can make people happier – though of course adopting a new political outlook is an internal change, whereas spinal injury/lottery winning are external changes. I think this is a weaker objection than (a).

  • At least in America, conservatives tend to be the ones whose lives are well-accepted and integrated into society. If someone is marginalized by society, it’s hard for them to remain a conservative. Yet, leaving conservatism doesn’t immediately fix the society that marginalizes them, so they’re still left unhappy.
    The Inductivist agrees here.

  • Z. M., yes, I do think there are noninstrumental, justificatory reasons for some things. And so do you. You believe, as I do, that you have reasons not to experience a horrible state of agony.

    frelkins, I don’t understand what your point is.

  • Shall we connect this discussion to the previous post on placebos? A certain belief or state of mind can improve one’s subjective impressions of the world while offering no objective improvement. Happiness and suffering seem to be subjective states, while well-being is an objective state.

    I’m trying to decide if Voltaire’s comment is perfect or ironic given his pseudonym.

  • Z. M. Davis

    Pablo, of course I don’t want to be in agony. I also want to know the truth (although not nearly as badly as I want to avoid agony). If the latter desire doesn’t count as having a self-justifying reason, why should the former?

    The idea I (and others, I think) are trying to get at is that ultimate ends don’t come from reason alone. They can be hardwired into your nervous system (like the end of avoiding pain) or you can acquire them through experience, but somewhere along the chain of goals and subgoals, you have to reach a point where you don’t have a reason for something. No goal has the status of a tautology–as far as I can tell, anyway.

  • Z. M., I didn’t say you wanted not to be in agony. I said you had reasons not to be in that state. Having reasons for something is not the same as wanting this thing. For example, you would still have a reason now not to be in agony tomorrow if–perhaps because you are severely depressed–there was nothing you now wanted.

    I urge you to read, if you have the time, the first chapter, and particularly the fourth section, of Derek Parfit’s Climbing the Mountain.

  • Z. M. Davis

    I’ve no time for Parfit right now, so–though I’m afraid it isn’t terribly Bayesian of me–we’ll have to agree to disagree for the moment.

  • Wendy Collings

    Conservatives much more happy than liberals? That’s certainly not my experience. But then, I’ve never lived in the USA.

    I suggest that Arthur Brooks survey people living under a liberal government and see what results the data gives, before making extrapolations about religion and optimism.

    I should think that anyone, whether conservative or liberal, will be happiest living in the society that most reflects and supports their own values.

  • Blutskralle

    I concur with Kyle. Correlation is not necessarily causation.

    More so, if we assume causation, is this still putting the cart before the horse? Are people conservative because they are happy, or liberal because they are unhappy? Would deliberately changing political views have no impact were it the symptom and not the disease?

    This article provides interesting ammunition for future research, but I see no valid and well-supported conclusions.

  • Conservatives are happy because they are skeptical that mankind can be perfected, and therefore don’t seek utopia. In fact, religious conservatives place ultimate happiness beyond the bounds of human life. Which is to say they find fulfillment through duty. It is through duty that one sacrifices.

    It seems to me that the liberal seeks an ever asymptotic approach to ultimate truth, which they know at some point might come to a clearer understanding. And it is that hope to know the ultimate truth that will cause them to overturn any established order, and so they question any duty not on the same path. The assumption of course is that the truth will liberate one from suffering. A dangerous assumption.

    One who seeks an ultimate truth in the world must inevitably re-order the world to accomodate that truth, and defines suffering as the distance from the possibility of perfection. They cannot accept that those without possession of the truth and the means to approach it are not self-deluded.

    But how can anyone who lived without knowing what we know possibly have been happy? I think there is a conceit that life of the mind delivers happiness divorced from the act of discovery. I think people misjudge the size of the soul and of the mind and presume that one can satisfy one or the other by living completely in them. But the mind and the soul are hungry and become jaded and self-serving. Happiness is found in balance. Balance requires discipline. To live entirely in the mind, or the soul, or the body are conceits.