How many times have I heard Christopher say to me, “You’re never happy!?”
Usually, it’s in response to me complaining about something legitimate like when he knows I’m coming over and asks me to do him a favor by picking up groceries for him and then he parks in the close spot and expects me to walk two blocks with his groceries… I typically say something like, “It would be really cool since I’m doing you a favor by getting you three bags of groceries, if you could park on the street and let me park in your space.” Then he usually says something like, “I let you park in my space that one time when I had you go get a few cases of beer for the party… God, Christine… you’re never happy!”
But this morning, I was glancing through the newspaper and I came across an article that I thought was funny (not as funny as my post about George Bush), but still funny and political nonetheless, so I figured I’d reproduce it for you here and then give you my own little commentary.
The article, published in yesterday’s edition of the Daily Breeze was titled “Why isn’t a liberal’s life a happy one?” It’s by conservative columnist George Will who writes for the Washington Post.
To bemused conservatives, it looks like yet another example of analytic overkill by the intelligentsia – a jobs program for the (mostly liberal) academic boys (and girls) in the social sciences, whose quantitative tools have been brought to bear to prove the obvious.
A survey by the Pew Research Center shows that conservatives are happier than liberals– in all income groups. While 34 percent of all Americans call themselves “very happy,” only 28 percent of liberal Democrats (and 31 percent of moderate or conservative Democrats) do, compared with 47 percent of conservative Republicans. This finding is self-reinforcing: It depresses liberals.
Election results do not explain this happiness gap. Republicans have been happier than Democrats every year since the survey began in 1972.
Married people and religious people are especially disposed to happiness, and both cohorts vote more conservatively than does the nation as a whole.
People in the Sun Belt– almost entirely red states– have sunnier dispositions than Northerners, which could have as mcu to do with sunshine as with conservatism. Unless sunshine makes people happy, which makes them conservative.
Such puzzles show why social science is not for amateurs. Still, one cannot– yet– be prosecuted for committing theory without license, so consider a few explanations of the happiness gap.
Begin with a paradox: Conservatives are happier than liberals because they are more pessimistic. Conversatives think the book of Job got it right (”Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward” ), as did Adam Smith (”There is a great deal of ruin in a nation” ). Conservatives understand that society in its complexity resemebles a giant Calder mobile– touch it here and things jiggle there, and there, and way over there. Hence conservatives acknowledge the Law of Unintended Consequences, which is: The unintended consequence of bold government undertakings are apt to be larger than, and contrary to, the intended ones.
Conservatives’ pessimism is conducive to their happiness in three ways. First, they are rarely surprised– they are right more often than not about the course of events. Second, when they are wrong they are happy to be so. Third, because pessimistic conservatives put not their faith in princes– government– they accept that happiness is a function of fending for oneself. They believe that happiness is an activity– it is inseperable from the pursuit of happiness.
Normal conservatives– never mind the gladiators of talk radio; they are professionally angry– are less angry than liberals. Liberals have made this the era of surly automobile bumpers, millions of them, still defiantly adorned with Kerry-Edwards and even Gore-Liberman bumper stickers, faded and frayed like flags preserved as relices of failed crusades. To preserve these mementos of dashed dreams, many liberals may be forgoing the pleasures of buying new cars– another delight sacrificed on the altar of liberalism.
But, then, conscientious liberals cannot enjoy automobiles because there is global warming to worry about. And high-powered cars (how man liberals drive Corvettes?) are metaphors (for America’s reckless foreign policy, for machismo rampant, etc.). And then there is — was– all that rustic beauty paved over for highways. And automobiles, by facilitating suburban sprawl, deny sprawl victims the uplifting communitarian experience of high-density living. And automobiles…
You see? Liberalism is a complicated and exacting, not to say grim and scolding, creed. And not one conducive to happiness.
Well… there are parts of that I have to agree with. The day that Christopher and I went shopping for a new car for me (which I didn’t get and decided to continue to drive my junky old car for a little while longer), Christopher suggested that I’d probably feel guilty driving such a nice car. He wasn’t that far from wrong, but I will admit that as I sat in the driver’s seat of a high-performance convertible, racing over train tracks at 65 mph just to test the “sport” suspension… the pangs of guilt magically began to wane…
Christopher and I have debated many times over whether people should have to fend for themselves, or whether the government should collectively help to take care of the less fortunate. While I am a big supporter of social organizations, non-profits, etc., a part of me does believe that there is more to be gained in terms of happiness by overcoming tough situations on one’s own without any help. Faced with adversity, and then emerging on the other side victorious, creates a feeling of self-reliance that is a foundation for happiness. I actually remember the day that I realized I didn’t need my parents to help me anymore. I was 20 years old, living in L.A. while the rest of my family lived 1500 miles away, and I caused a four car pile up on Robertson Blvd. No one was hurt… the damage was all relatively minor… but after all the tow trucks and cars honking, and insurance card exchanges, police reports, etc., I drove home in my rental car. And as I was driving, still a little shell-shocked from everything I’d had to take care of– I realized that through the whole thing… I never once thought to call my parents. I had just done it on my own… not that I really knew what I was doing or if I’d missed any really important step… but I did it. And then I thought to myself that if I could handle this… I could pretty much handle anything and at least figure it out… or know I could. And that was a very important rite of passage for me. It gave me a great deal of confidence in myself and my abilities and that does equate to happiness on some level.
The other point that I think George Will hit on was this notion that liberals put their hopes — and often far too lofty expectations– on the government’s ability to “fix” problems. Let’s face it… the government can’t even handle getting our mail to the right place. Under what logic should we assume they can handle the complex issues of homelessness, global warming, racism, and sexism. And yet, we do… we create laws and initiatives like affirmative action, title IX, the war on drugs, etc., in an attempt for the government to squash social ills and then become sorely disappointed when the government fails. So then we create social programs to do what the government couldn’t do… and while some work, many don’t… because social programs typically address only the symptoms of these problems, not the root. And that’s not their fault, and they do their best, but how much can they possibly accomplish when a significant portion of their time is spent trying to procure the funds and donations and grants they need to continue to exist? And yet we support these organizations because we see them for what they really are– they are institutions that are trying to do something to help– and they do which is why they deserve our support. But then why don’t we accept the little things that the government does that also helps? We don’t… when the government does something that helps, we complain that it should have been more. When a non-profit does something that helps, we congratulate them and sing their praises. Maybe our expectations for the government really are a little too high…
So… even as a “liberal to moderate” Democrat (even though Christopher swears I’m a “conservative” Democrat), I see George Will’s points and somewhat agree.
And in deciding to think like a Republican, I ask myself “How does this whole thing affect me?” Well… the next time Christopher complains that I’m never happy, I can simply remind him that he’s right… I’m a Democrat.