If you pay attention to your social media feed, it probably comes as no surprise that people find happiness in the misery of their political opponents. My research sheds light on this partisan phenomenon.
Economists, including myself, are increasingly interested in analyzing people’s reported levels of happiness and well-being. In a recent paper published in the European Journal of Political Economy, I used responses from the General Social Survey (GSS) to address two questions:
- Do people report being happier when the US president has the same political affiliation (party) as them?
- Are political moderates happier than political extremists (as predicted by standard theory)?
[A quick note on methodology: Surveys like the GSS and others study subjective well-being by asking respondents an introspective question such as: Given your life as a whole, how happy would you say you are? Respondents are then given a range of answers to choose from. The GSS is conducted annually and distributed across the general population.]
Previous studies found that conservatives report higher levels of happiness than their liberal contemporaries. My analysis built on these findings by showing that individuals report higher general levels of happiness when the president shares their political affiliation. This indicates that individuals consider political party a major part of their identity and that the ups and downs of political competition are felt very generally.
Additionally, those with extreme political views report higher levels of general happiness. People who describe themselves as extremely liberal or extremely conservative report higher happiness than those with moderate views.
I further explore these findings in a new working paper that demonstrates the effect presidential party has on happiness is driven entirely by those with extreme political views. For moderates, the political affiliation of the president has no effect on happiness. People with extreme political views, however, experience a substantial increase in happiness when the president belongs to their party.
What does this mean for the future of political discourse and civility?
First, we shouldn’t be surprised by the trend toward polarizing, partisan speech—especially on social media.
For those who hold extreme views, political triumph or failure is felt at a deep level; social media provides a convenient and immediate outlet for expression. This can lead to speech being dominated by those living on the political edge. (The good news is your social media feed may not reflect the actual views of society!)
Second, we need to remember our shared humanity.
With party affiliation becoming part of one’s social identity, individuals will be highly affected by the plight of the group. The tendency can be to view those outside the “tribe” as other and reduce their humanity. We must fight this impulse – both in public discourse and online.
A flourishing society calls for a culture of toleration and free speech to foster innovation and the exchange of ideas. Living on the edge might bring happiness, but what happens when society falls off?
Meet the Author
Jeremy Jackson is the director of the Center for the Study of Public Choice and Private Enterprise (PCPE) and an associate professor in the NDSU Department of Agribusiness and Applied Economics. Read his bio.