If you want to know the meaning of life, science probably can’t help you much better than Kermit the Frog can. (For the record, Kermit says, “Always be yourself. Never take yourself too seriously. And beware of advice from experts, pigs and members of parliament.’)
Meaning is personal to each of us. However, a new study published June 15 in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science suggests that some people might be better at finding that meaning than others — and the difference may come down to politics.
According to the study, which compiled survey results from more than 50,000 participants in 16 countries, people who identified as political conservatives were more likely to find meaning and satisfaction in their lives than liberals were.
“Political conservatives tend to be happier than liberals, a finding that has been labeled the ‘happiness gap’ in media reporting,” a team of psychologists from the University of Southern California (USC) wrote in the new paper. “One conservative commentator even described it as ‘niftily self-reinforcing; it depresses liberals.’
Vote red or feel blue?
In the new study, researchers split the idea of happiness into two facets: day-to-day satisfaction and an overall sense of meaning in life.
To see how strongly these concepts contributed to the happiness gap between liberals and conservatives, the USC researchers compiled the results of five different psychological surveys administered between 1981 and 2017. Each survey asked participants to state their opinions on various political issues and to answer some version of the questions “Do you feel your life has meaning?” and “How satisfied are you with your life?”
The difference the researchers saw wasn’t huge, but it was consistent. Across all five surveys, people who identified as having conservative political beliefs were more likely to report stronger feelings of meaning and satisfaction in life than liberals were. The pattern held true whether participants were asked to assess their satisfaction with the previous 24 hours or to look at their lives as a whole.
Why might this be? Surprisingly, God wasn’t the answer. Even when the researchers adjusted their statistical model to take religious attendance out of the equation, conservatives still proved more satisfied and purposeful than liberals.
One clue came from identifying whether a respondent’s views were more socially or economically conservative. “Social conservatism (in form of opposition to abortion and gay marriage) was a better predictor of meaning in life than economic conservatism, whereas the reverse was true for life satisfaction,” the authors wrote.
The researchers said this split neatly reflects the two main components of conservative ideology: a rationalization of inequality and the resistance to change.
If it ain’t broke, don’t fix anything
The link between life satisfaction and economic beliefs is easy enough to grasp. Financial well-being makes life less stressful, and previous studies have found that conservatives are less moved by the inequality experienced by others than liberals are. One 2008 study found that as income inequality increased in the United States from the 1970s to the early 2000s, the happiness gap between conservatives and liberals also increased.
Experts think that people who identify as economic conservatives are more likely to believe that some people deserve to be rich, others deserve to be poor and the system that made society that way is fair, the study suggested.
And what about the link between a meaningful life and resistance to change? It may be as simple as a matter of order, said David Newman, author of the new study and a doctoral candidate at the USC Dornsife’s Mind and Society Center.
“Finding meaning in life is related to the sense or feeling that things are the way they should be and that there is a sense of order,” Newman said in a statement. “If life feels chaotic, then that would likely dampen your sense that life is meaningful.”
Of course, this interpretation is all conjectural, Newman wrote in the study, and the link could ultimately be a matter of circumstance. For example, some common factor in the study participants’ childhoods could have led them to independently develop conservative viewpoints as well as feelings of satisfaction and purpose later on.
Still, across more than 50,000 survey responses, a clear meaning-of-life gap showed up, and that’s worth investigating more, Newman and his colleagues wrote.
To paraphrase the great Kermit once again, it’s not easy being green… but apparently, it’s a little easier (or at least more satisfying) being red.