Monday, November 01, 2010

Are you happy now?

Oh dear, another someone with another re-hash of the by-now routine "lefties are humorless sourpusses" meme. Writing at AOL, Paul Kix, a senior editor of Boston magazine, says that
[a] recent study says that Republicans are happier than Democrats and -- and! -- have more friends.

The study, published in the journal Group Processes & Intergroup Relations, is the work of Jacob Vigil, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico. He gathered 701 undergrads at a university in Florida in the months before the 2008 election and had them fill out a survey. The survey touched on, among other things, the students' pasts, their political affiliations, the number of friends they have, and how much they trusted them and, by extension, the rest of society.

Vigil then had the participants look at photos of strangers' faces, whose expressions ranged from joy to sadness, fear to surprise, disgust to anger. Vigil asked the participants to interpret, among other things, how threatened they felt by the faces. He then took that data, and that which came from the completed surveys, and reached his conclusions about who's happy and why.
Now, far be it from me - and I mean this sincerely - to denigrate socio-psychological research. But while I have a real interest in psychology (I once considered pursuing a career as a clinical psychologist), my science background is more in the so-called "hard" sciences (physics, to be exact) and as a result I often find the results of such research to be frustratingly imprecise and the conclusions drawn to be based on unspoken (and often enough unexamined) presumptions.

It's worse in this case because the full text of the study is behind a pay firewall. So I'm not sure how much of the characterizations is Vigil's and how much is Kix's. Either way, something jumped out at me immediately: "how much they trusted [their friends] and, by extension, the rest of society." By extension? There is a straight-line relationship between how much you trust your friends and how much you trust society as a whole? Really? Based on what? That strikes me as a glaring, untested assumption before the data is even gathered.

What's more important to the issue here, however, is that based on the abstract of the study, Kix more than once either misstates or misunderstands the study in order to push his own preferences. For one thing, he says Vigil "reached his conclusions about who's happy and why." The study was not about "who's happy and why," it was about how people examined faces to look for cues indicating either competency, found to be favored by the right, and trustworthiness, favored by the left.

But getting to the "friends" part, something good the study did, something often ignored in such studies and assuredly and much to my irritation was ignored in the lede of Kix's article, was to consider what people mean by the term "friend."
Vigil found that Republicans have a looser definition of friendship, one that doesn't rely as much on the sort of intimacy that Democrats favor.
More specifically, rightists define "friends" as those who can help them socially or professionally while lefties define "friends" as people with who they have some degree of emotional intimacy and can trust. Somehow, to Kix this means that rightists are "happier" with their friends "because these friends can help them" while lefties are "miserly" and have fewer friends because they are "victims" who don't trust other people. Again, Kix has misrepresented the study: Besides the pejorative language, saying the study concluded that lefties are "are wary of trusting" people is simply false: It concluded, rather, that they value "trustworthiness" over "competency" in seeking new social connections.

But put bluntly, what all this really means is that rightists define "friend" as someone they can exploit for their own benefit while lefties define "friend" as someone they care about on a direct personal level. Besides finding one of those superior on a moral level - and yes, you know which one - I also have to note that it makes Kix's initial claim that rightists "have more friends" utterly meaningless, a classic apples and oranges, because rightists and lefties don't mean the same thing by the term "friend." In fact, according to the abstract, the study doesn't even say "friends," it says "social networks," which is not the same as "friends" unless you equate "friends" and "acquaintances." Kix's description of the study and its conclusions is simply inaccurate, even misleading. But it does fit the meme.

(Parenthetically, Kix wrote that "Republicans, the study says, feel more threatened by the people they don't know." How in Kix's mind it could be true both that lefties have fewer friends because they don't trust other people and rightists have more friends in spite of being more threatened by strangers still has me scratching my head. The only way out is to adopt the rightists definition of "friend." Which tells us more about the meme - and perhaps Kix, who has apparently embraced that definition - than it does about either lefties or rightists.)

The same issue of definitions arises in discussing "happiness." Usually, and in this particular case, it is just self-defined; surveys ask people some variation of "How happy are you?" No attempt at all is made to determine how the person defines the term or how understandings might vary. Admittedly, there is some reason for that: How do you put a value to an internal emotional state, how do you quantify such an inherently unquantifiable notion as how "happy" you are? If I say I'm "fairly happy," am I feeling the same degree of happiness as someone else who says the same? How would anyone know?

There is a notion - tenable, though hardly conclusively demonstrated in non-laboratory environments - that over a large enough group, those variations tend to even out and so for a general statement about a group as a whole, such surveys can be an accurate measure. Granting that at least for the moment, there is still the problem of interpretation, even of meaning. That is, what does it mean to say "conservatives are happier than liberals?" (Or the reverse, for that matter.) What defines "happiness?" We've already been told that right and left don't define "friend" they same way, why should we think they agree on "happy?"

Kix links to a post by Arthur Brooks of the American Enterprise Institute (red flags flying everywhere) which, if you follow it through the rest of Brooks' series, reveals that to the degree the data can be trusted there is something that makes for an intersection of "happiness" with political belief. That intersection, it develops, is not a matter or left or right, it's a matter of left and right - or, more specifically, hard left and hard right. According to the results that Brooks cites, those toward the "fringes" tend to be, or at least say they are, happier.

What unites those more-extreme beliefs in a way that differentiates them from their more centrist brethren? One clear way is what could easily be called "certainty." Those at the outer edges of the political spectrum tend to be clearer and firmer in their beliefs; they tend to have either worked through or successfully repressed questions and conflicts. And, apparently, having strong convictions contributes to self-described happiness.

(Which, considering the number of times I've been called "stubborn," "pig-headed," and "arrogant," should mean I should be ecstatic. But never mind.)

That connects to a broader context. Greater security in various ways, be those physical, emotional, or psychological, appears to be connected to self-described happiness. For example, wealthy people tend to rank themselves higher on a happiness scale than poor people do. Married people - or people in a committed relationship - tend to regard themselves as happier than single people do. And people who are more secure in, more convinced of the rightness of, their political convictions tend to express a greater degree of happiness than people who are less devoted to a particular set of principles.

But that raises the central question: Why do these and other studies say that "Republicans" (that is, rightists) are "happier" than "Democrats" (that is, lefties)? Yes, rightists tend overall to be wealthier than lefties, but even after controlling for that and other factors such as age, marital status, and even church attendance, a difference remains. So why? It can't be the fact of being a Republican: Unlike, say, getting wealthier or entering a committed relationship, the act of changing party registration is not itself going to make you happier. It's got to be something about what produces a Republican. What could that be?

I think I know and it draws on a couple of related points.

One is that Kix describes the results of Vigil's survey as showing that lefties "sympathize with people more" than rightist do, which is pretty much a psychological truism: Such sympathizing, such even more to the point identification, is a factor strongly connected with being on the political left. As Eugene V. Debs famously said when being sentenced to 10 years in prison for his opposition to World War I,
years ago I recognized my kinship with all living beings, and I made up my mind that I was not one bit better than the meanest on earth. I said then, and I say now, that while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
Lefties are more sensitive to, more emotionally aware of, the injustices in the world, more emotionally connected to the suffering of innocents, than are rightists - and that leads them to connect their own welfare, their own security, their own, yes, happiness, with the welfare and security of others. As I expressed that in a letter to a friend some time ago:
The fact is, it’s the right that says “I,” the left that says “we.” It’s the right that says “gimme,” the left that says “we’ll give.” It’s the right that says “compete,” the left that says “cooperate.”
Lefties can't really be happy when those around them are not.

Another point is that has been shown often enough to be another psychological truism that the one psychological thread that unites people who call themselves “conservative,” reaching across lines of class, age, race, and gender, is fear of change. Conservatives want things to stay the way they are - or, more often, to be "the way they used to be" (even though they often weren't). You want an example? Just think of the TPers with their cries that they are going to "take the country back," a "back" that applies chronologically, and thus socially, as well as politically.
I’ve for a long time argued that the great emotional attraction of conservatism in all its forms is its certainty: You don’t have to decide if something is fair or unfair, right or wrong, good or bad. You just have to know what someone else told you. It’s already been decided. The doubt, the fear, the questions, the responsibility are all gone.
(An even longer time, now: I wrote that just under 17 years ago.)

That is, rightists as a group are more likely than lefties as a group to be convinced they have The Truth and such a state increases self-described "happiness." They know what's true, what's false, what's right, what's wrong, and they know because they were told what's true and false and right and wrong and they don't have to think about it, they just have to believe what they were told. It's an easy, a psychologically safe, way to live and to be, one that does not require you to think though matters and experience all the doubt and conflict involved in finding your own way to your own convictions.

So why are rightists supposedly "happier" than leftists? Two reasons: One, lefties think in broader terms. Like rightists, they want to be secure. Unlike rightists, it matters to them, affects their own sense of security and thus "happiness," if other people are also secure. It's "I" versus "we" and the burdens on "I" are much smaller.

And two, unlike rightists, lefties are not spared what I once called "the frightening prospect of having to re-think yourself, possibly from scratch." Lefties do not inhabit a world - a happy security blanket world - of predetermined answers drawn from handed-down, unexamined, principles. Even those on the "fringe," the ones usually most secure in their beliefs, have almost always gotten there by going through a period when all their beliefs, everything they'd held true before, seemed to be up for grabs. Rightists are "happier" than lefties as an overall group because as an overall group they are more secure in their beliefs because they've never bothered to subject them to any critical examination.

There's one other important thing here, one which goes back to the earlier question of if we should think lefties and rightists think about "happiness" the same way. It's quite possible they don't.

In a review of one of Arthur Brooks' books at, a man named Richard Bennett makes a very valuable point (I have corrected some typos and cleaned up the formatting some):
On page 4 Brooks distinguishes between three distinct forms of happiness. They can be summed up as "fleeting feelings of happiness", "happiness on balance" and "moral quality of life".

The first is similar to joy or euphoria, [the] second is like an emotional balance sheet we keep that allows us to tell honestly whether we are living, all things considered, a happy life. This is the level most often studied by social scientists and it is the level measured in the survey data used in this book.

The third form is of happiness measurement is eudaimonia, a "moral quality of life (that) has little to do with a sense of happiness - it is the well-lived life, in which a person realizes his or her true potential...Aristotle termed (it) activity of the soul expressing virtue."

Brooks is not interested in this form of happiness! But for liberals it is possibly the most important sense of what is meant by "happiness". What is the import of someones self reported state of happiness when no account is taken of of his aims?
"The well-lived life." A life with meaning, with importance, a life that matters to others - that is the sort of life that lefties crave, that is the sort of life that will make them happy. Is also a life not easy to achieve because even if others think we have lived such a life, we may well not think so, having desired even more from ourselves. It is also a life to which few rightists will aspire because it requires that identification with others for purposes beyond one's own self-advancement at which they fall short compared to lefties. Which means no, what constitutes "happiness" to lefties and rightists is not, in the final analysis, the same thing, because something of genuine importance to lefties is also something in which rightists have little interest.

So do rightists "have more friends" than lefties? Are they "happier" than lefties? Sure - so long as you define the terms in ways that will get you that answer. And that's how you advance the meme.

Footnote: Kix really just can't help himself, he has to keep pushing the meme. He quotes a study by the Pew Research Center as saying, in Kix's words,
regardless of who holds political power, people who have more money, and worship a god regularly, "tend to be happier."
However, the very link he cites says that "the factor that makes the most difference in predicting happiness is ... being in good health."

But that doesn't push the meme, does it?

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