16% of Biden voters reported depression

on the pattern that progressives tend to be less happy

In the American Spectator, under the headline “Leftists Scramble to Explain Why Conservatives Are Happier Than Liberals,” Ann Hendershott quotes our research, which I’d previously reported on this blog:

In the Tufts study, the researchers conclude: “[I]f a liberal and a conservative have the same income, education, race, gender, age, marital status, and religious attendance, the conservative will feel more fortunate … liberals are people who—regardless of their actual social positions—rate their own circumstances relatively poorly, and that attitude drives their ideology and makes them unhappy or else reflects their unhappiness.”

The ellipsis in her quote replaced these words from our report: “A critic might say that …” We hedged because we can’t tell whether negative assessments of one’s own life affect one’s political views (a causal thesis). But Hendershott is a critic of liberals, and she adds a positive assessment of conservatives: “The reality is that true happiness, and a truly satisfying life, comes from caring for others—being physically present to them. Conservatives know that marriage and family life make one happy. … They know that true happiness comes from selflessness—living for others. And this is why they are happier.”

I am not sure about her causal claim. Progressives are less happy than conservatives regardless of marital status (and religious attendance). Using General Social Survey data, I ran a simple regression to predict divorce based on party identification, income, race, gender, and education. Before 2010, identifying as a Republican was associated with lower divorce when these other factors were considered. Since then, party identification has not been related to divorce. Indeed, Democrats and Republicans have had statistically indistinguishable divorce rates in the past decade. These statistics do not settle the issue, but I’d be surprised if progressives derive less happiness from their family involvement than conservatives do in the same social circumstances.

In our model, progressives who are politically active are almost as happy as conservatives who are politically active. Like intensive involvement with one’s family, being an activist is also a way of “living for others.”

Our empirical contribution was the finding that it’s the people with actual depression who make the progressive sample less happy than the conservative sample. Individuals with depression are a minority of those on the left, yet depressed Americans cluster on the progressive side of the aisle. In that case, generalizations about why progressives are less happy than conservatives may be misleading–they don’t apply to people without depression. A better question would be why depression is disproportionately concentrated on the left even once race, gender, and income are controlled for. Musa al-Gharbi has collected previous studies that also find links between ideology and depression. Is this link causal?

Leaving the empirical issues aside, I would pose a very general question about the relationship between mood and knowledge of the world. A standard view might be that any mood is a bias, a source of error; objectivity requires countering all moods. The metaphor of “rose-colored glasses” suggests that optimistic people would have more accurate perceptions if they took off their lenses. Indeed, science since the Renaissance has sought to develop methods and protocols that decrease the impact of the subjectivity of the observer. If scientific methods and instruments work, then a scientist’s mood shouldn’t matter.

An alternative view, which Michel Foucault labeled “spirituality,” is the idea that in order to perceive things correctly, we must first bring ourselves into the best possible mental state. A mood is not a bias; it is the basis of perception. The question is whether our mood is ideal for perceiving well. For example, to perceive what another person is saying, we should probably attain a mood of receptiveness and equanimity. Likewise to perceive that nature is beautiful or that God is good requires an appropriate state of mind. These states can be labeled virtues rather than (mere) moods.

Positive states may not be the only ones that help us to perceive well. Heidegger, for example, sees moods such as anxiety and boredom as advantageous for revealing types of truth. As Michael Wheeler explains:

According to Heidegger’s analysis, I am always in some mood or other. Thus say I’m depressed, such that the world opens up (is disclosed) to me as a sombre and gloomy place. I might be able to shift myself out of that mood, but only to enter a different one, say euphoria or lethargy, a mood that will open up the world to me in a different way. As one might expect, Heidegger argues that moods are not inner subjective colourings laid over an objectively given world (which at root is why ‘state-of-mind’ is a potentially misleading translation of Befindlichkeit, given that this term names the underlying a priori condition for moods). For Heidegger, moods (and disposedness) are aspects of what it means to be in a world at all, not subjective additions to that in-nes

This general view of moods would suggest that being unhappy is not necessarily bad for perceiving the state of our social world. It might reveal insights about current injustices. There is no objective mood, but we might be able to shift negative attitudes into positive ones, or vice-versa. The question is which moods to cultivate in ourselves when we assess society and politics.

One answer might be that we need all kinds of moods and a robust exchange among people who see things differently. Nietzsche is hardly a deliberative democrat, but this remark from his Genealogy of Morals supports the goal of bringing people with diverse moods into conversation: “The more emotions we can put into words about a thing, the more eyes, the more different eyes we can set over the same thing, the more complete is our ‘concept’ of that thing, our ‘objectivity’” (III:12, my trans.). We might then be glad that our society includes both liberals and conservatives who are prone to different states of mind.

I wouldn’t be fully satisfied with that conclusion because it leaves unaddressed the question for individuals. If I perceive the political world sadly, or even in a depressed state, should I strive to change that attitude? Or should I try to convince the positive people to be more concerned?

To answer that question may require a more nuanced sense of an individual’s mood than we can obtain by asking questions about overall happiness (as we did in the reported study). We need a bigger vocabulary, encompassing terms like righteous indignation, empathy for loved ones or for strangers, generalized compassion, sensitivity, caring, agape, technological optimism or pessimism, quietism, acceptance, responsibility, solidarity, nostalgia, utopianism, zeal, and more.

Al-Gharbi reports that the correlation between happiness and conservatism is “ubiquitous, not just in the contemporary United States but also historically (virtually as far back as the record goes) and in most other geographical contexts as well.” He has reviewed the literature, and I am sure he’s right. But I suspect that once we add nuance to the characterization of moods, we will find more change over time and more diversity within the large political camps.

For example, I recognize a current kind of progressive who is deeply pessimistic about economic and technological trends and their impact on the environment. I don’t believe that mood was pervasive on the left immediately after the Second World War, when progressives tended to believe that they could harness technology for beneficial social transformation–not only in Europe and North America but also in the countries that were then overthrowing colonialism. I also recognize a kind of deep cultural pessimism on the right today that seemed much less prevalent in the era of Reagan and Thatcher.

Perhaps measures of happiness have continued to correlate with self-reported ideology in the same way over time and space, but there’s a lot more going on. The content of the ideologies, the demographics of their supporters, the pressing issues of the day, and the most evident social trends have all shifted.

Here’s a possible conclusion: You can’t avoid viewing the world in some kind of mood. Some moods can be more virtuous than others, and it’s up to each of us to try to put ourselves in the best frame of mind.

Liberals and progressives might give some thought to why there is a strong statistical association between their ideologies and unhappiness. Does that mean that we are prone to certain specific vices, such as resignation, bootless anger, or discounting good news? Does it mean that our political messages are less persuasive than they could be? What might we learn from people who seem to be happier while they assess the social world? And what should we do to assist the substantial number of people on our side who are depressed?

Although those questions may be worth asking regularly, they do not imply that we should drop our general stance. People who are happy about the world should also ask themselves tough questions and consider the possibility that those who are unhappy–or even the depressed–might have insights.

See also: perhaps it’s not that conservatives are happier but that people with depression cluster on the left; philosophy of boredom (partly about Heidegger); Cuttings: A book about happiness; spirituality and science; and turning away from disagreement: the dialogue known as Alcibiades I.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.