Friday, October 23, 2015

Lost Happiness

This post is inspired by Andrew Gelman's comment on a previous post about partisanship and satisfaction with various things.  Andrew noted that the relationship between partisanship and general happiness had changed, a point first noticed by Jay Livingston, who was commenting on a piece by Arthur Brooks  entitled "Conservatives are Happier, and Extremists are Happiest of All."  Brooks said "the happiest Americans are those who say they are either 'extremely conservative' . . .  or 'extremely liberal' (35 percent). Everyone else is less happy, with the nadir at dead-center 'moderate' . . . ."  He didn't give a source, but Livingston noted that in the 2010 sample of the General Social Survey, people who called themselves "extremely conservative" were the least happy group.

I looked at the complete GSS data starting in 1972 to see how the relationship changed.  If you look at the combined sample, there's absolutely no sign that "extremists" are happier:  happiness increases pretty steadily as you go from left to right.  Brooks said he had controlled for a number of other variables, so maybe that accounts for it.  I doubt it, but I'm not going to pursue that issue.

Next I allowed the relationship to change from year to year, expecting that there would be some gradual trend--a tendency for conservatives to become relatively less happy.  There was no sign of that, but I thought I saw some variation that corresponded to party of the president--conservatives were relatively unhappy when Democrats were in office.  But on including a set of dummy variables for presidents, there was little variation until GW Bush and then Obama.  So I ended up with a three-period classification:  up to 2000, Bush (2002-8--the GSS is done only in even numbered years), and Obama (2010-4).  The relationship in the three periods is shown in this figure:

Higher numbers on the vertical axis mean happier.  In the 20th century, conservatives were happier than liberals, with those who called themselves extremely conservative being happiest of all.  Under Bush, conservatives and extreme conservatives stayed about the same, but everyone else became less happy.  Under Obama, conservatives and extreme conservatives became less happy, but everyone else stayed about the same.  The net result was that happiness went down across the board between the 20th century and Obama.  Liberals and moderates lost under Bush and didn't gain under Obama, and conservatives didn't gain under Bush and lost under Obama.  There seems to have been an especially large drop-off among extreme conservatives, who became a lot less happy under Obama.

I was surprised at these results--I thought that even among people with strong political views happiness would be influenced overwhelmingly by personal circumstances, so that any relationship with the party of the president would be so small as to be undetectable.    And if it is influenced by the party of the president, why just since GW Bush?  People had strong feelings about at least some of the 20th-century presidents, notably Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton.  So I'm going to have to think about this before proposing an explanation.

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