Don't Worry, Be Happy

Why this recipe for happiness may not work for everyone

Posted Jul 09, 2012

In my previous post, I focused on the instrumental role that money plays in the pursuit of happiness in this country and on how our striving for happiness is thwarted by runaway socioeconomic inequality. Clearly, this is not a popular topic with the readership of Psychology Today: that post scored the least number of hits among all the essays that I published on PT to date.

It's just as good that I am not running for office, because anger at the socioeconomic status quo is a career-killer in American politics. In recent decades, the voting public has consistently preferred sunny slogans projecting demented optimism (such as Ronald Reagan's "Morning in America") to being told that there are things in our way of life that are broken and that need to be fixed rather than painted over (which is what Jimmy Carter did in his "Crisis of Confidence" speech). It turns out, however, that we Americans are not uniform in this attitude: rather, people's differences along the conservative/liberal dimension, which account for so much of our present political polarization, help explain also their selective blindness to injustice and inequality.

One line of evidence for the effect of political orientation on people's sensitivity to inequality comes from the studies conducted by Jaime L. Napier and John T. Jost. It has been known for some time that conservatives are on the average happier than liberals. Among the possible accounts for this difference, Napier and Jost mention the liberals' distinct cognitive style (which makes them less likely to settle for simple answers to life's questions) and the conservatives' greater tendency to engage in "system justification" — a technical term that describes a broad acceptance of the status quo. In a paper titled Why Are Conservatives Happier Than Liberals? (Psychological Science 19:565-572, 2008), Napier and Jost report that the second explanation prevails:

"Above and beyond the effects of church attendance, income, marital status, and other demographic variables, there was a significant effect of political orientation on life satisfaction; the difference between conservatives' and liberals' satisfaction with life was explained at least in part by conservatives’ stronger tendencies to rationalize economic inequality."

These tendencies, moreover, were found to be mediated by meritocratic beliefs (which justify inequality by postulating that people who are less well-off are mostly so deservedly, insofar as they lack character or ability). The results of Napier and Jost also suggest that, whatever the source of the differences in average life satisfaction between conservatives and liberals, the relative unhappiness of the latter is affected more strongly by increased inequality (see the figure below).


sensitivity to inequality, by political orientation

The relation between political orientation and self-reported happiness as a function of the Gini index, 1974 through 2004.

It is interesting to compare the conservatives' endorsement of what they perceive as meritocracy with the cognitive illusion known as the Dunning-Kruger effect — the illusory self-assessed superiority of the underdogs. When applied to the problem of discerning the root causes of socioeconomic inequality, the Dunning-Kruger effect seems to have been captured, presciently, by John Steinbeck, who remarked that "Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires." A recent study by Steve Loughnan et al., titled Economic Inequality Is Linked to Biased Self-Perception (Psychological Science 22:1254-1258, 2011) offers some evidence in support of this idea.

While positively biased self-perception, which is greater in Western countries compared to the rest of the world, is traditionally explained by cultural tendency to individualism, Loughnan et al. hypothesized that it may also stem in part from the implicit need of members of economically polarized societies to assert themselves more strongly. Indeed, as the figure below shows, although the researchers found self-enhancement in all fifteen national studies, it proved to vary significantly with economic inequality. Moreover, income inequality predicted differences in self-enhancement better than did individualism/collectivism.

self-enhancement bias plotted against inequality

Self-enhancement bia as a function of economic inequality

A final, rather more chilling piece of evidence that I would like to bring to bear on the inequality issue has to do with power. In a society such as ours, power means primarily economic power that the rich have over the poor (although the inexorable ascendancy of micro-Napoleons, such as a drunk-with-power TSA agent who bosses around an old lady in a wheelchair, or a rotten cop who sprays peaceful demonstrators with Mace, cannot and should not be ignored). Clearly, the more extreme the inequality, the more power is concentrated in the hands of the economic elite. We all know, in the abstract, that power corrupts; a new study by Joris Lammers and Diederik A. Stapel (Power increases dehumanization, Group Processes and Intergroup Relations 14:113-126, 2011) shows, concretely, one form that such corruption can take: those with more power increasingly perceive "others" — the members of an out-group — as less than human. Add to this the observation that the prototypical "others" for the 1% of us who hold economic power are the 99% who lack it, and you can guess the potential consequences of this dynamics for the social fabric of our society.

To sum up, it appears that our ability to enjoy our situation, such as it is, and to look back on our lives with fondness depends on our personal politics. What is our situation like? To me, it reminds of a story that I came across in a collection of Jewish humor:

A man brings some very fine material to a tailor and asks him to make a pair of pants. When he comes back a week later, the pants are not ready. Two weeks later, they still are not ready. Finally, after six weeks, the pants are ready. The man tries them on. They fit perfectly. Nonetheless, when it comes time to pay, he can't resist a jibe at the tailor.

"You know," he says, "it took God only six days to make the world. And it took you six weeks to make just one pair of pants."

 "Ah," the tailor says. "But look at this pair of pants — and look at the world!"

 If you don't get this joke, you must be a true conservative.



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