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.