Today we’re debuting a new recurring feature we’re calling Queries. Scientific journals publish new research so often that the nuance and context of the latest findings can become lost in the news cycle. Queries will venture beyond the headlines by presenting discussions with researchers that put new findings in perspective. These discussions will examine the backstory behind the latest studies, ask how new research fits into what’s already known, and look at what the latest studies tell us about our world. Our inaugural run is below — let us know what you think!
It’s a finding that’s been replicated again and again: Ask political conservatives and liberals to rate their happiness, and conservatives come out ahead. According to a report from the Pew Research Center, Republicans have claimed greater happiness than Democrats every year since the General Social Survey began asking in 1972, and Pew’s own surveys also find a partisan gap in reported happiness.
But a paper published in the March 13, 2015, issue of Science seemed to turn the happiness gap on its head by showing that when happiness is measured using behavioral cues, liberals come out ahead. The researchers examined happiness according to three different measures — self reporting (the method that produced the happiness gap), language, and facial expressions. The results showed that conservatives say they’re happier, but liberals more often behave like happy people, by using positive language and smiling genuinely.
The finding made headlines across the news, including in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Time and Reason. I spoke with lead author Sean P. Wojcik about the research, his methods and why we’re so obsessed with who’s happiest.
CA: When the press release about your paper landed in my inbox, the first thing that occurred to me was how mushy the concept of “happiness” is. You can’t really determine who’s happiest without defining what you’re talking about. So what is happiness anyway?
SW: Psychologists typically define happiness as a combination of our satisfaction with life and with important domains of life, such as work and relationships. This study was my part of my Ph.D. thesis, and in my dissertation I wrote that Aristotle described happiness as our ultimate desire. When we want material things or we want relationships or money, what we’re really trying to get is the happiness that results from those things.
CA: What do we know about the “happiness gap” between conservatives and liberals?
SW: People have tried to understand why conservatives report being happier than liberals. Some say that conservatives have a greater sense of agency and optimism or they have certain social and cultural values that promote happiness. Others have been less flattering, saying that conservatism helps people feel less troubled about social inequalities by helping them to rationalize them away.
CA: But your study suggests that the happiness gap depends on the way that you measure happiness, right?
SW: All of the data on the happiness gap relies on self-reports, and when we measured it in a different way, we got a different result. What we did in our study is look at differences in the way that liberals and conservatives evaluate themselves in general — not just on happiness, but on all kinds of traits and abilities. For this part of the study, we recruited over 1,400 participants from YourMorals.org, a psychological research website that I and several of my co-authors help run. We asked people to evaluate their life satisfaction using the most commonly used measure in psychology. We also assessed their self-enhancement tendency in other domains.
What we found is that conservatives evaluate themselves in a more favorable way across the board. In psychology, we call this “self-enhancement,” and most people engage in some degree of it. There’s a study from the 1980s that asked Americans to rate their driving ability compared to other Americans, and something like 91 percent of the people say they are above-average drivers, which is impossible.
I’m not saying that conservatives are the only ones doing this, but they did show more self-enhancement in our study, and that tendency seemed to explain why they were reporting greater happiness.
CA: Let’s talk about the other ways you assessed happiness in your study. What else did you measure?
SW: We looked at two things — smiling behavior and linguistics. We assessed smiling through something called the Facial Action Coding System or FACS, which looks at the two muscle groups associated with smiling.
For the linguistic analyses, it was just counting words, and we used software called LIWC [Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count] that has a ton of support in the psychological literature. Basically, it’s a word-counting program that comes with dictionaries of words related to important psychological characteristics and emotions. We used LIWC to count the frequency with which people used words from the positive and negative emotion scales.
CA: And you did this facial and linguistic analysis on members of Congress?
SW: Yes. In the second study, we assessed the emotional content of speech for each of the members of Congress in the year 2013, and we observed more frequent positive emotional language among liberal politicians than among conservatives. We thought maybe there was something peculiar about the year 2013, so we also looked at the ratio of positive and negative emotionality for each party over the past 18 or so years in the congressional record. What we found was that Democrats used a higher ratio of positive to negative emotion words over that span of time.
We also assessed the smiling behavior of members of the 2013 Congress by looking at the congressional pictorial directory, which is a little booklet of official-looking photos of every member of Congress. I don’t know if anyone but me reads it, but we had a FACS-certified coder go through and analyze smile intensity in every photograph. We found that liberal politicians smiled more intensely than conservatives overall and this was especially true in the muscle orbiting the eye, which indicates more genuine smiling, often called Duchenne smiling. Both of those together suggest that liberal politicians express more positive emotionality than conservative politicians.
CA: You also analyzed non-politicians. What did those studies show?
SW: In study three, we did a linguistic analysis of Twitter status updates, and we identified close to 4,000 participants. We found that tweets by people who followed the Democratic party had more positive and less negative emotional content than tweets by people who followed the Republican party.
In study four, we also wanted to try and replicate the smiling analysis, so we analyzed photos of people on LinkedIn who were associated with liberal and conservative organizations like Planned Parenthood and the Family Research Council. We found almost the exact same pattern that we observed in Congress, where liberals smiled more intensely than conservatives did — especially in the muscles orbiting the eyes — which indicates genuine happiness and enjoyment.
CA: But isn’t it a bit fraught to divide people into such crude categories?
SW: That’s a valid point. How we define these groups is an open question, like you’re alluding to. What it means to be liberal or conservative can vary over time. It can vary across cultures. It can vary within a person.
CA: Your study was picked up all over the place. People obviously care, but why? Why does it matter whether liberals or conservatives are more happy?
SW: If people really care about being happy and promoting happiness, it’s important to understand what is and is not associated with it. There’s this growing interest in using happiness research to inform public policy, and as a researcher, I think it’s a very noble idea — to the extent that it’s based on accurate data. If we’re going to inform policy decision-making or evaluate the effectiveness of policies before and after they’re implemented, I think what this research really speaks to is the importance of measuring happiness in all its forms.
CA: I can’t help but think that some of the interest in this work stems from motivated reasoning and a certain smugness of people wanting whichever group they affiliate with to “win” the happiness competition. Do you agree?
SW: Yeah. As I’ve talked to the media, I’ve almost felt that there have been some interviews where people seem extremely resistant to this. I’ve tried to understand where it’s coming from, and I think there’s a perception that our research is picking a winner and a loser.
But we’re not saying that liberals are happier than conservatives. We’re saying they behave happier, but conservatives report being happier, and we don’t know which of those is more important or more valuable or more predictive of the things that ultimately matter. It’s kind of a nuanced finding, and that doesn’t always translate as well. It would be great to just say this group is happier and this group wins and that group loses, but that’s not what this is about.
CA: That leads me to my final question — are the differences you found here meaningful? Just because you can measure something doesn’t mean that it has any real-world relevance.
SW: These are very small differences, and while they do provide some insight into what it means to be happy, this isn’t the final word by any means. Most people are happy most of the time, and that seems to be true for both liberals and conservatives. In some ways, our research raises more questions than it answers.
If there were a converging coherent story here and we saw the same pattern in all kinds of measures, then we could say with a lot more confidence that one group is happier than the other, but that’s not the case. So yeah, it does kind of raise questions about exactly what happiness is and speaks against this idea that one group is clearly happier than the other.
CORRECTION (March 20, 5:05 p.m.): Because of a transcription error, an earlier version of this article misquoted remarks by Wojcik. He said his research found that liberal politicians smiled more intensely than conservatives, not more intentionally.