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The Politics and Subjective Well-Being Paradox Explored

Updated: Oct 11, 2019

Who’s happier, conservatives or liberals?

For decades, scholars in various disciplines have studied which variables affected subjective well-being (SWB) or happiness. More recently, specific attention has turned to studying the effect that political orientation has on happiness. The general finding in this area was that liberal countries had happier citizens (Radcliff, 2001), but conservatives were happier than liberals (Napier & Jost, 2008).  Consistent with livability and system justification theories, in a new study, my co-authors, Adam Okulicz-Kosaryn, Derek Avery, and I, also found that more liberal countries had higher SWB yet more conservatives reported higher SWB. To reconcile these paradoxical findings, we proposed and found that measurement moderated the relationship between political orientation and SWB at the country level. Our findings suggest that indeed, it is really important for governments to invest in their citizenry to protect them—at least to some extent—from socioeconomic hardships because these have important implications for citizens’ happiness. Additionally, our findings suggest that governments may need to do more to explain to citizens why certain investments and policies may be needed and how they are actually beneficial to citizens overall. On the other hand, citizens may also need to be more informed of just how our personal political orientations may affect our happiness and just how our individual beliefs can have an important impact not only on our lives, but the lives of many other citizens. These results surprised us to an extent because they highlighted how similar terminology is used across disciplines, in our case, conservatism and liberalism, yet they may lead to contradictory findings when we look at them at different levels of analysis and from different perspectives. While political scientists are generally more concerned with what governments actually do and the investments they make, psychologists are generally more concerned with individuals’ attitudes and beliefs which adds an additional layer of complexity to individual relationships and outcomes because human behavior is quite complex. 

But why are conservatives happier than liberals? Conservatives are generally happier than liberals because conservatives more readily accept and endorse system justifying beliefs. This acceptance and endorsement heuristic leads to the belief that individuals are responsible for their outcomes and, ultimately, get what they deserve. In other words, they rationalize the status quo. In contrast, liberals generally engage in more perspective taking and are more empathetic to others’ socioeconomic situations which can lower their happiness because they may take into account not only these issues but also their “aspirational” state of affairs when they rate their SWB. Even though conservatives may live in a country where the government is in opposition to their individual political beliefs, they still greatly benefit, as do all citizens, from the greater governmental investments in the citizenry which makes our lives better so their SWB ratings are not negatively affected by this. 

Should we take this study seriously? Governments and organizations should definitely take this study into account because governments and organizations play an important part in the happiness ratings of citizens. Governments and organizations work together to provide jobs/careers, benefits, and other protections and opportunities for people that allow them to provide for themselves and their families. As stated above, governments should make it clearer to citizens why certain investments into the citizenry (e.g. public education, healthcare, job opportunities, etc.) are not only important overall for the country, but also how they affect people in their individual lives. The main takeaways from the study are that citizens generally benefit greatly (and arguably conservatives the most) in the form of increased SWB from more liberal governmental policies, and scholars need to take into account the complexities and contradictions that may occur when constructs are measured at different levels of analyses.

So should people just adopt conservative political orientations to be happy? We are definitely not suggesting people adopt conservative views in order to be happy. This could actually be detrimental to all citizens because countries actually need a good deal of citizens with liberal political orientations to continue to fight for and advance the causes that are representative of liberal governments. In many countries, liberal policies are constantly under attack for a variety of reasons so it’s very possible for countries to change their political orientation through shifts in what governments invest in and what they deem important. Overall, if conservative policies at the country level gain more support and countries de-invest in these policies and programs that are designed to protect the citizenry from socioeconomic hardships, then it is likely that SWB will collectively decrease for citizens in those countries (although individually conservatives may not experience as much of a decrease as liberals). Click here to read our study in its entirety in Journal of Applied Psychology. 

*Dr. Holmes can be reached on Twitter @OHIV.


Napier, J. L., & Jost, J. T. (2008). Why are conservatives happier than liberals? Psychological Science, 19(6), 565–572. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02124.x

Okulicz-kozaryn, A., Holmes IV, O., & Avery, D. R. (2014). The Subjective Well-Being Political Paradox : Happy Welfare States and Unhappy Liberals. Journal of Applied Psychology. doi:10.1037/a0037654

Radcliff, B. (2001). Politics, markets, and life satisfaction: The political economy of human happiness. American Political Science Review, 95(4), 939–952.

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