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After virtually ignoring happiness for more than 100 years, social scientists are making up for lost time. They're churning out hundreds of research papers on the subject each year. There are happiness conferences, a Journal of Happiness Studies, a World Database of Happiness. Happy, you might say, is the new sad.
All of this cogitating about contentment has revealed much about who's supposedly happy and who isn't. Most studies show that wealthy people are marginally happier than poor ones. People with pets or children are no happier than those without. People with active sex lives are -- surprise! -- happier than those without. No single morsel of happiness data, though, is more intriguing than this: Republicans are happier than Democrats.
A 2006 Pew Research poll found that 45 percent of Republicans describe themselves as "very happy," compared with only 30 percent of Democrats (and 29 percent of independents). This is a sizable gap and a remarkably consistent one, too. Republicans have been happier than Democrats every year since the General Social Survey, conducted biannually by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, began asking about happiness in 1972.
What to make of this finding? Is there something about being a card-carrying member of the GOP that induces a warm, fuzzy feeling, a sort of political Prozac? Or does the river of causality flow in the other direction: Are happy people more likely to become Republicans than Democrats? Or maybe neither explanation holds water and it only appears as if Republicans are happier than Democrats.
The most obvious place to look for an explanation is, of course, with money. Wealthy people are marginally happier than poor ones, and Republicans, according to some surveys, tend to be wealthier than Democrats, so that must be why they're happier, right? Nice try, but no dice. Even after adjusting for differences in income, the Pew researchers still found a marked happiness gap: Poor Republicans are, on average, happier than poor Democrats, and wealthy Republicans are happier than wealthy Democrats.
Maybe the answer is power. Republicans have controlled the White House for most of the past 35 years, and nothing spells happiness like p-o-w-e-r. Wrong again. Republican bliss persists even if a Democrat -- be it Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton -- resides in the White House.
You can practically hear the researchers at Pew scratching their liberal heads. They put the findings through a rigorous process called multiple-regression analysis in an attempt to isolate the relevant variables. But try as they might, they could not wash that Republican happiness out of their hair.
Basically, Republicans have in spades all the things that combine to make us happy. Church attendance is particularly crucial. People who attend religious services regularly are more likely to report being "very happy" than those who don't -- 43 percent vs. 26 percent (a happiness boost, by the way, that cuts across all the major religious denominations). In addition, Republicans are more likely to be married than Democrats, and married people are happier than singles.
When I tell my liberal friends about Republican happiness, they usually reply angrily -- angry not being a happy trait. "They're just not paying attention," one friend snapped. "Ignorance is bliss," said another. Or perhaps it's what Ralph Waldo Emerson said, putting it more eloquently and less angrily: "God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose. Take which you please -- you can never have both."
I don't know whether Democrats follow world events more closely than Republicans, but they are, on average, better educated, and that might explain their glumness. People with advanced degrees report being less happy than those with only a bachelor's.
There is something to be said for the under-examined life. Psychologists have found that when it comes to maximizing contentment, a little bit of self-deception goes a long way. Happy people remember events more rosily than they actually happened, while the morose remember the past accurately.
If this isn't depressing enough for liberals, it turns out that some of their own pet policies are to blame for their unhappiness. Once in power, Democrats tend to focus on issues that, according to the science of happiness, have little effect on our contentment -- income equality, for instance, and racial diversity. Neither is linked to greater happiness. Countries with large disparities between rich and poor are no less happy than more egalitarian ones, studies have found. And the happiest countries in the world tend to be homogenous ones, such as Denmark and Iceland, not the ethnic melting pots that liberals celebrate.