Conservatives and the Conceit of Happiness

Steve M has a worthwhile post up about an NY Times column by Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute. A.C. Brooks thinks we Americans should be more optimistic. In particular we need optimistic leaders, he said, and politicians have to choose whether they will project optimism (good) or pessimism (bad).

While the citizenry may vacillate, leaders generally have to select one disposition or the other. Pessimism arouses fear and anger, while optimism inspires hope. Hope can accompany fear in times of extraordinary sacrifice (such as war), but this is rare. As a practical matter, a leader must choose.

This is rich, considering that it’s the U.S. Right that stays in power by keeping its base whipped into a seething frenzy of resentment and outrage. A.C. then claims a study found optimistic leaders to be more effective, and Steve M informs us that’s not what that study found. What it actually said was that leaders who project happiness are perceived to be better leaders, but they actually aren’t by any objective measure.

But I noticed a long time ago that righties place high value on a perception of happiness. For years we’ve been told that “studies say” conservatives are happier than liberals, and for years I have refused to believe this. They certainly don’t act happy (see above about seething frenzy of resentment and outrage). The “happiness” claim seems especially odd in light of a number of studies that have found conservatives to be more fearful than liberals. Fear and happiness do not co-exist.

I commented on this discrepancy back in 2006, noting that the “studies” showing conservative happiness were based entirely on self-reporting; in other words, conservatives must be happier because they rated themselves as happy.

So back then I speculated that “Conservatives on the whole are less introspective and more conformist than liberals. Thus, they are more likely to say they are happy because (a) they’re in denial about their own unhappiness, and (b) that’s what they think they’re supposed to say.”

Turns out that I was right. More recent studies based on more objective measures such as behavior and language analysis gave liberals an edge in the happiness department. Conservatives are more likely than liberals to “self-enhance.” Self-enhancement bias is defined by the science geeks as “the tendency to describe oneself more positively than a normative criterion would predict.” This is illustrated by the words of the great Anne Richards, who said of George H.W. Bush that he was born on third base and thought he’d hit a triple.

But then I continued to reflect whether I’ve ever much cared if my political leaders are “happy.” I’d say having a healthy sense of humor is a plus, but when you speak of happiness as a quality that is intrinsic to an individual, and is not just a passing condition, IMO you’re getting into trouble. And if you have to lie to yourself (see above about self-enhancing) to persuade yourself you are “happy,” does that even count?

(BTW, Buddhists make a distinction between happiness as an emotion and happiness as a cultivated mental state. The emotion happiness is a reaction to an object or circumstance, such as a gift or good fortune. This kind of happiness, while pleasant, is a temporary and empty thing. Happiness as a cultivated mental state is something like a mental habit of remaining balanced and content no matter what is going on “out there.” The way to achieve the second kind of happiness is to let go of self-clinging, greed, fear, and all that. More of a self-releasing than a self-enhancing.)

Reagan fans always make much of Saint Ronald of Blessed Memory’s famous “sunny disposition.” It always seemed to me that the “sunniness” was wrapped around a sour core of umbrage, as if he were perpetually reacting to a personal insult. The “sunniness” was largely an affectation, IMO. The guy was an actor, after all.

One might infer from this that righties want to believe Real America is just like Little House on the Prairie, except with cars and microwaves. And when they look out upon the land and can’t see what they want to see — largely because it isn’t there — it enrages them. Gosh darn it, they would be happy except for that dadblamed reality thing.

And this takes me back to the other Brooks, who petulantly whined that Ta-Nahisi Coates didn’t appreciate the American Dream and was in fact “dissolving the dream under the acid of an excessive realism.” Yes, when you wake up, dreams do dissolve. That’s generally not considered an argument for staying asleep, though.

23 thoughts on “Conservatives and the Conceit of Happiness

  1. How soon we forget how “happy” all of us Americans were, from 2001 – 2009!

    Nothing said “optimistic” quite like W’s smirk, and Dick’s snarl!

    Happy times, happy times…

    And sure, St. Ronnie of “Who am I” Where am I? I always depend on the kindness of strangers” Reagan had a sunny disposition – but that sunny disposition covered up ‘a dark and stormy’ heart.
    But people loved his smile – even as he stuck a shiv in their backs.

  2. There’s a bit of conservative glurge that goes around about this optimistic man who’s always talking about how he’s doing *great*, never better, and his power of positive thinking is so great – see, he was shot. And seeing the look on the medical professionals’ faces, he knew they thought he was a goner. So he cracks this joke about his allergies (“bullets!”) and asks them not to write him off, and he bounces back just fine.

    Because when the doctor looks at a gunshot victim, and thinks “this poor bastard’s as good as dead”, he’s just thinking *negatively*. And people who are *so* messed up due to being shot that every medical professional in the room thinks they’re a goner nevertheless has enough blood pressure in their brains to be conscious, and make complicated statements about how they’re going to make it if everyone claps harder to save Tinkerbell believes that it’s possible.

    Yeah, I could say you had a good point about doubting the “conservatives are happier!” based upon self-reporting.

  3. “Fear and happiness do not co-exist”

    Many conservatives that I know are completely miserable, they fear the government at every turn, they think they need to defend themselves at all times, all of the fear is imaginary of course, but it enforces their bias so yes it makes them happy to be miserable?

  4. I read “the other Brooks” on Coates. I dismissed it as another serving of his twaddle, with a generous topping of smugness and willfully unaware sprinkles.

  5. “Fear and happiness do not co-exist.”

    No, but hate/loathing and happiness can!

    Think of how happy our bigoted, mostly male, white conservatives are when a police officer kills another black/minority youth!
    PURE JOY!!!

    That’s when conservatives are happiest:
    When the objects of their hatred, are suffering.

  6. I think President Obama’s a very cheerful guy. Why, just yesterday he was on my teevee dancing with some of his Kenyan friends & relations, and it looked so darned fun I got up and danced across my living room– me, with my semi-artificial hips!

    Meanwhile, that dude in Lafayette, Louisiana? Not happy. The dead-eyed kid in Charleston, S.C.? Likewise. They’re miserable, they’re angry, they’re blaming everyone-they-hate-for-no-real-reason, and they’ve got guns.

    I would MUCH rather dance!

  7. Nirvana in the twisted conservative world is the achievement of victim status. They revel in it. An aspect of victimhood is fear. Thus, to a conservative, fear equals nirvana.

  8. Even with these candidates being so obviously unfit for high office, it is possible to look at them and say “May they be free from suffering and the cause of suffering.” Same with Sarah Palin even though she is not in the crowd; I could always look at her and think, “May she be free from the need for adulation from adoring crowds” and “May she be free from feelings of resentment.” If she had been free from these causes of suffering, she probably never would have wanted to enter politics or appear on national television. She would be have been happier and we would have had a better political process for the past few years. Freedom from chronic resentment in the electorate would allow political disagreements to focus on varying approaches to policy problems which would remain even if we were all completely sane.

    One thing I will miss about this president is his relative freedom from obvious neediness and his equanimity as the tides of fortune ebb and flow. His generally upbeat demeanor is not tainted by an undercurrent of umbrage which Maha noticed and which many of us saw when he was in office. As Joan noticed, he can dance for the right reasons,

  9. Wow, it would be hard to pick a favorite from all those songs, fortunately that isn’t necessary.

    In my younger days, I collected 78s. I had over five hundred, mostly very common ones, a lot of Bing Crosby and big band era stuff. I’m not sure what happened to most of them. WMNF in Tampa recorded and archived a lot of them, but, none of that would be of much use today with MP3s and such.

    The first photo for the Crosby/Andrews Sisters piece reminded me that the 1940s were the pinnacle of style for men. Before the right wingers seized and sullied the bow tie. It was on of the few accessories that men could have a bit of fun with. It was also associated with liberality. As my best friend once noted over a brandy, “The bow tie is horizontal and democratic, it’s formal, but egalitarian. The four in hand tie presents a column, which is always a fascist symbol.” Well, there was brandy present after all. But, I think he had a point.

    Regarding happiness, I suppose it’s virtually impossible to define. The French have a saying about “being happy in your skin,” and I think that gets something right. It seems that a big part of happiness is feeling that your are in a good place doing something that seems “right,” in both the sense that it is what you want to do and what you would do to make things better. We like to feel virtuous. (There’s definitely a “Noble Eightfold Path” thing going on.) But, there’s a dark side. fundamentalist Christians have to rejoice in the Lord. So many might profess to be happy, even though they appear to be continuously outraged, angry and fearful. That’s just how they roll. They must be getting something out of it. I think, they get a sense of place and a role in the big drama. It’s not a lifestyle I would choose, but they must be getting something out of it. Some just want to play superhero, some want to lead their fellows across the divided waters or make a good living grifting. Happiness is being engaged in the world, but, that’s my subjective take on it.

    At the same time, it seems okay to have a manageable desire to move along to some other place or occupation, as long as you don’t become fixated on it and lose the connection to where you are. We are considering moving on, possibly to another country. It may happen, it may not, but, “Whatever happens, my toes are still tappin’,” as a popular movie character once remarked.

    Sorry, I get long winded. Maybe I need a better editor.

  10. These comments are bringing tears to my eyes. My favorite of the video has to be Bing Crosby although I”m not fond of the Andrew Sisters. Bing was one of the crooners and what a smooth voice. I grew up on him and others of that area. My dad collected 78s and I still have most of them, packed in boxes in my basement. Now that I am moving on, selling my house and moving into a studio, I have been faced with what to do with the records. I have no way to play them but I know I could still buy a record player that would be able to play them. But they do take up a lot of space and maybe I never would play them again. And what would I do, throw them in the trash. I’m sure they’re not worth any money. So that is my dilemma. It is hard to let go though. I also have an old radio from my childhood. I remember sitting in front of it listening to all the oldies on Saturday morning; Lone Ranger, The Shadow, Mr. District Attorney, Let’s Pretend and many others.
    I know happiness does not depend on the things I have accumulated and everything is impermanent. But I will have to mourn what passes from my life no matter what it is. However, I remember that love is all that matters and it lasts forever.
    Thanks, guys, I needed a good cry.

  11. That’s very gracious of you Cund, if I might use a familiar term. I need an old style fourth grade teacher with a taser.

  12. I’ve read something similar about morality. How religious conservatives tend to judge people’s morality not based on what they do, but on how much they talk about morality. They confuse morality and sanctimoniousness in other words.

    • Stephen Stralka — that’s absolutely right about sanctimoniousness. That’s how you end up with Ralph Reed.

  13. Regarding the apppearance of happiness:
    From “Jurgen, a Comedy of Justice” by James Branch Cabell:

    “And Satan followed Jurgen’s suggestions, and the threatened rebellion was satisfactorily discouraged, by tearing into very small fragments anyone who grumbled about anything. So that all the subjects of Satan went about smiling broadly all the time at the thought of what might befall them if they seemed dejected. Thus was Hell a happier looking place because of Jurgen’s coming.”

  14. I have always questioned the agency of the conscious mind to make decisions. It has always seemed to me thus: the conscious (aware) mind is aware that a choice has been made, but the conscious mind has no real agency. The actual decisions, problem-solving, etc are made in the unconscious (metaconscious? aconscious?) mind.

    This isn’t to suggest that I am a determinist (specifically relevant to ontology), but rather to suggest that awareness does not equate to free will.

  15. Monty: This is what I have concluded after many years of living on this earth, making decisions, watching others, especially being a psych nurse and practicing hypnotherapy. We are ruled by our subconscious although we are fooled into thinking we are logical thinkers in making decisions. We come into this world a blank slate but gradually with programming from parents, society, experience we get brainwashed so to speak, form beliefs and opinions. Because we have to pay so much attention to the logistics of just living these beliefs get stored in the subconscious and then we just react when faced with a dilemma not questioning the reasonableness. And of course we seek out others who share our beliefs which only reinforces them cause it’s too scary to challenge them.
    Something interesting I learned recently from my unitive self group is that whenever we take any action, even something as simple as picking up a pencil, we think about picking up the pencil but the act has already begun before the thought. Now figure that one out. I can’t say I have researched whether this is true or not but I trust the person who said it as being credible. If so, then we have to question what is thought and what initiates it. As Deepak Chopra says, who or what is it behind the thinker?

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