According to polls — Pew Research Center, the National Science Foundation — and studies such as Arthur Brooks’s Gross National Happiness, conservative Americans are happier than liberal Americans.
Liberals respond this way: “If we’re unhappier, it’s because we are more upset than conservatives over the plight of those less fortunate than ourselves.”
But common sense and data suggest other explanations.
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For one thing, conservatives on the same socioeconomic level as liberals give more charity and volunteer more time than do liberals. And as regards the suffering of non-Americans, for at least half a century conservatives have been far more willing to sacrifice American treasure and American blood (often their own) for other nations’ liberty.
Both of these facts refute the liberals-are-more-concerned-about-others explanation for liberal unhappiness.
So, let’s look at other explanations.
Perhaps we are posing the question backwards when we ask why liberals are less happy than conservatives. The question implies that liberalism causes unhappiness. And while this is true, it may be equally correct to say that unhappy people are more likely to adopt leftist positions.
Take black Americans, for example. It makes perfect sense that a black American who is essentially happy is going to be less attracted to the Left. Anyone who has interacted with black conservatives rarely encounters an angry, unhappy person.
Because the liberal view on race is that America is a racist society. Therefore, for all intents and purposes, a black American must abandon liberalism in order to be a happy individual. It is very hard, if not impossible, to be a happy person while believing that society is out to hurt you. So, the unhappy black person will gravitate to liberalism and liberalism will in turn make him more unhappy by reinforcing his view that he is a victim.
The unhappy gravitate toward the Left for a second reason. Life is hard for liberals and life is hard for conservatives. But conservatives assume that life will always be hard. Liberals, on the other hand, have utopian dreams. At his brother Robert’s funeral, the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy recalled his brother saying: “Some men see things as they are and say, ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’”
Utopians will always be less happy than those who know that suffering is inherent to human existence. The utopian compares America to utopia and finds it terribly wanting. The conservative compares America to every other civilization that has ever existed and walks around wondering how he got so lucky as to be born or naturalized an American.
Third, imagine two Americans living in essentially identical socioeconomic conditions. They earn $45,000 a year, they have the same amount of debt on their homes, and both have the same number of dependents. One seeks governmental assistance wherever possible; the other eschews any governmental help. Which one is likely to be the liberal and which one is likely to be the happier individual?
This is not a question only an oracle can answer. The one who yearns for governmental help is the one who is likely to be both liberal and less happy. Conservatism, which demands self-reliance, makes one happier. The more a man or woman feels like captain of his or her ship (as poor as that ship may be), the happier he or she will be.
A fourth explanation for greater unhappiness among liberals is that the more people allow feelings to govern them, the less happy they will be. And the further left one goes, the more importance one attaches to feelings.
It is liberal educators and liberal parents who have clamored for protecting young people from the pain of losing games. The liberal world came up with the idea of giving trophies to kids who lose; they don’t want their children feeling bad. Conservatives, on the other hand, teach their kids how to lose well. They are less worried about their children feeling bad.
A couple of years ago, I gave a speech on happiness to the students and faculty of a prestigious high school in the Los Angeles area. The subject was the need to act happy even when one isn’t feeling happy — because it is unfair to others to inflict our bad moods on them and because we will never be happy if we allow our feelings to dictate our happiness.
From what I experienced that day and learned later, liberal students and faculty generally loathed my speech; conservative students generally loved it (there were no conservative faculty to speak of). Why? Because conservatives are far more likely to be comfortable with the idea that feelings are not as important as behavior.
Those who know that feelings must not govern us, but that we must govern our feelings, are far more likely to be happy people.
The upshot of all this? There is an amazingly simple way to defeat the Left: Raise children who are grateful to be American, who don’t complain, who can handle losing, and who are guided by values, not feelings. In other words, teach them how to be happy adults.
Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and columnist. He may be contacted through his website, dennisprager.com.