If You're Happy and You Know It, Are You Liberal?

by Maggie Fox /  / Updated 
Get the Better newsletter.

When you ask Americans who’s happier, people who consider themselves conservatives tend to say they are. But a new study finds that when you look at objective criteria, liberals look happier than conservatives.

Data from organizations that take online surveys, users of social media, transcripts and photographs from Congress show liberals smile more and use more positive language than conservatives.

"We were surprised by how consistently happiness-related behavior was predicted by having a liberal political ideology," said Sean Wojcik, who’s working on his PhD in psychology and social behavior at the University of California Irvine.

"If you ask people to rate themselves across almost any set of positive traits - intelligence, social skills, even driving ability - most will rate themselves above average."

Researchers analyzed pictures of every member of Congress and analyzed language from the 18 years of Congressional records.

Democrats used 13.6 positive words for every negative word. Republicans used 11.5 positive words for every negative word — and that held no matter who was in the majority at the time, the researchers found.

Politicians are clear about their liberal or conservative affiliations. But to gauge the leanings of the general public on social media, the team looked at their support for causes to judge where those people fell on the philosophical scale.

"We saw similar patterns of emotional language and smiling behavior among Congress members, Twitter users and LinkedIn users,” Wojcik said.

Other studies of how happy people are have simply asked them. But the researchers, whose findings are reported in the journal Science, says people might be motivated to exaggerate.

"If you want to know how happy someone is, one way to do it is to just ask them, and this logic has been relied upon heavily in research on subjective well-being," said Peter Ditto, a professor of psychology and social behavior at UC Irvine who worked with Wojcik on the study.

"Happy is as happy does."

"But another way to think about it is that happy is as happy does, and looking at happiness-related behavior avoids the issue of someone striving to present him — or herself — as a happy person."

It might be that people with conservative viewpoints want to be happier, said Wojcik.

"If you ask people to rate themselves across almost any set of positive traits — intelligence, social skills, even driving ability — most will rate themselves above average. We observed that effect to be stronger among conservatives than liberals,” he said.

They figured that out by looking at answers from 1,433 visitors to YourMorals.org, a research website. People were asked to reveal their political ideology and then answered questions such as: “The conditions of my life are excellent”.

Outside experts said the study was not convincing. "The observed differences are quite small," said Robert Emmons of the University of California at Davis. "Happiness is the norm for both.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

Get the Better newsletter.
MORE FROM better