Conservatives Find More Meaning in Life than Liberals
Several years ago, researchers discovered that political conservatives are more satisfied than liberals, a finding the media labeled the “happiness gap.” According to conservative commentator George Will of the Washington Post, the happiness gap is “niftily self-reinforcing; it depresses liberals.”
Although the happiness gap is relatively small, researchers began to wonder why such a difference between conservatives and liberals exists. Some researchers have pointed to the fact that conservatives are more likely to rationalize inequality and feel good about their income. Others have suggested that conservatives simply tend to provide responses on questionnaires that are more socially desirable. For example, some evidence suggests that although conservatives report greater satisfaction than liberals, liberals display greater happiness through genuine smiles and the use of positive emotional language in their writing. Still others have suggested that conservatives have a more optimistic outlook on life than liberals.
In all of these studies, happiness has been measured with questions about how satisfied people are with their lives as a whole, but another type of well-being has received considerably less attention —well-being that involves people’s sense of meaning and purpose in life. Furthermore, questions about satisfaction with one’s life as a whole fail to capture the dynamic fluctuations of well-being that we all experience during the day. So, my colleagues and I conducted a research project to examine the link between political orientation and both meaning in life and day-to-day well-being.
In a recent article published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, my colleagues and I found consistent evidence that conservatives report greater meaning and purpose in life than liberals, and this pattern is not specific to Americans. This relationship was found in nationally representative data sets involving more than 25,000 participants across 14 countries in Western Europe plus the U. S. and Canada. Some of these data were collected as early as the early 1980s and some as recently as 2017.
In some studies, participants were asked to reflect on their life in general, whereas in other studies, participants rated the current day or the present moment over the course of a week or two. These studies demonstrated that conservatives not only reported more meaning in life when reflecting on their life as a whole, but they also found more meaning and purpose during the ebbs and flows of daily life. As I noted, some of these data were collected in the early 1980s, so these differences have nothing to do with our current political climate.
In each country, and in each decade studied, conservatives reported that their lives, days, or moments were more meaningful or purposeful than liberals did. The difference between conservatives and liberals was small, but they were about the same size as differences in meaning in life between the rich and poor or between people who are healthy versus sick. Conservatives also reported somewhat higher life satisfaction and happiness than liberals, but the difference was most pronounced for meaning in life.
You might think that this difference between liberals and conservatives might be explained by differences in religiosity; after all, conservatives tend to be more religious than liberals. But, although religiosity contributes to meaning in life, the difference between liberals and conservatives in meaning and purpose remained even after we statistically controlled for religiosity. That means that if we were to find a group of conservatives and a group of liberals who were equally religious, we would still find that the conservative group would report more meaning in life than the liberal group.
The link between conservatism and meaning in life was strongest for social conservatives, that is, people who oppose same-sex marriage, want to abolish abortion, and support traditional values. It was less pronounced for economic conservatives, who emphasize free market issues. This finding sheds light on one possible reason why conservatives find more meaning in life than liberals. Social conservatives tend to resist cultural change and accept the status quo, which may increase their sense that life is coherent and stable, two key contributors to the perception that life is meaningful. Future research is clearly needed to understand this possibility in greater detail, but the main finding from this set of studies is quite apparent: conservatives report more meaning and purpose both in their daily lives and in life more broadly than liberals do.
For Further Reading:
Newman, D. B., Schwarz, N., Graham, J., & Stone, A. A. (2019). Conservatives report greater meaning in life than liberals. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 10(4), 494-503
David B. Newman is a Post-doctoral Scholar at the Center for Self-Report Science at the University of Southern California. He is interested in understanding well-being in daily life with a particular focus on daily diary and Ecological Momentary Assessment methods.