In Pursuit of Happiness

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is a well-known phrase to many Americans. Thomas Jefferson famously enshrined it into the Declaration of Independence. What’s interesting about the addition of ‘happiness’ is the historical record is unclear of its precise meaning as Jefferson used it.

The research center at Monticello -- Jefferson’s Presidential Library -- concluded the most logical guess is that Jefferson borrowed from George Mason’s Virginia Declaration of Rights. Regardless of the source of inspiration, the pursuit of happiness begs several questions:

  • What does it mean to be happy?
  • How is happiness quantified?
  • How do Americans set aside their political ideologies and find shared happiness?

Before going further, please understand that the United States remains the most desired country for immigration. According to the World Population Review, the United States has approximately 48 million foreign-born residents. The following five countries on the list have 49 million foreign-born residents combined. America may have its problems, but that is not stopping others from seeing it as the land of milk and honey. 

America is the clear champion in this metric. It must imply that Americans are ‘happier’ and living ‘better’ lives than foreigners anywhere else. Still, how is happiness defined on a social scale?

A 2012 blog in Psychology Today by a doctor of social work, Arthur Dobrin, wrote about a study from the American Enterprise Institute, which found that conservatives are generally happier than liberals. Dobrin claimed, “conservatives explain the data by pointing to life choices. More conservatives are married, and conservatives practice religion to a greater extent. Marriage and being active in one’s religion are both correlated with being happy.” 

The study’s original author, Arthur Brooks, provided a counterclaim stating, “conservatives are essentially self-centered, tuning out the misery of the world around them. It is a matter of ignorance being bliss.” It seems like an oversimplification to present happiness as blissful ignorance. Moreover, there are plenty of selfish people of all political persuasions. Suggesting this sickness is prone to a single worldview screams of its own kind of ignorance. 

Dr. Dobrin concludes his blog, offering that “happiness isn’t simply about how an individual feels. It is about the overall state of the world and how everyone in it can find a satisfying life.” Perhaps, happiness truly is about life choices. Yet, if it were that simple, wouldn’t more people be happy? How does that account for an individual’s economic and social station in life? How does it address mental health?

Another study from 2018 confirmed the results that Brooks and Dobrin tried to dismiss. David Newman of the University of Southern California authored the research, publishing it in industry periodical Social Psychological and Personality Science. Newman observed:

“A question that still needs to be addressed is why conservatives find more meaning in life than liberals. Our results showed that it can’t be completely explained by the fact that conservatives are more religious than liberals and religious people find more meaning in life than non-religious people. But the results suggest it is more likely related to social conservative issues (e.g., views on abortion and gay rights) than economic conservative issues.”

The 2018 study still leaves questions that need exploration. How do political views on social issues lead to more or less happiness? Perhaps, having settled perspectives on concepts such as the institution of marriage, gender fluidity, and the beginning of life permits an individual to forego the tension that must accompany constantly moving the goalposts. If so, this nuanced interpretation would address the claim in Newman’s conclusion that suggests faith-based values play less of a factor in the outcome of happiness.

Yet another study from 2019 provides a concrete explanation for a possible root cause of happiness. The Institute for Family Studies found 52% of conservatives are completely satisfied with their family lives. By comparison, only 41% of liberals felt the same. Even more stark is the divide between how each ideology views the foundational strength of families. 80% of conservatives believe that marriage is the bedrock for strong families; only 33% of liberals agreed.

The three studies offer enough overlap to describe generalized conclusions based on the trend data. Marriage and social institutions provide a structure to support individuals and families through adversity. Religion or faith-based values play some role in happiness but do not directly produce it. Firm beliefs on controversial social issues allow the mind to avoid the complexities of a contextualized cancel-culture where a commonly held position on a topic suddenly becomes ‘toxic.’

None of the studies support the conclusion that Brooks lazily offered. Happiness is not scientifically linked to ‘ignorant’ political or social beliefs, nor is it the result of being self-centered. Screeds such as this are available from a handful of legacy media outlets. The claims entirely lack evidence. It doesn’t stop platforms like the Huffington Post from mangling the data. Statements like “perhaps paradoxically, people who self-identified as conservative reported higher life satisfaction than their more liberal peers” are, unfortunately, commonplace.

The author of that 2014 article, Macrina Cooper-White, briefly mentions the results of a handful of studies. She then proceeds to dismiss the findings with unfounded claims like the one above. Ms. Cooper-White is hardly alone in this endeavor. A web browser search yields numerous results where liberal commentators contort study after study that repeatedly show conservatives are reporting happier lives than their liberal counterparts.

Returning to Jefferson’s idea of the pursuit of happiness, perhaps his pen was guided by something more profound than the economic prosperity espoused in the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Jefferson, perhaps intuitively, understood that having firm beliefs in something would make a person happier than having to constantly reevaluate one’s views based on the latest trends on social media. Of course, no hashtags or storylines were popping up on TJ’s media device. Still, the man wise enough to draft the Declaration of Independence and complete the Louisiana Purchase had the savvy to recognize the pursuit of happiness as the central tenet of any life well-lived.

Image: Flickr

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