Why are left-wingers less happy than right-wingers? According to psychologists Jaime Napier and John Jost, it’s because of the way they interpret inequality. American right-wingers are more likely to believe that hard work leads to success. As a result, they find inequality less troubling because they are less likely to see it as unfair.
In a recent post, Andrew Norton suggests another theory — one that doesn’t rely on ideological justifications for inequality:
… both lower average happiness and leftism have a common link to a weaker sense of personal control and optimism. Both these attributes are strongly correlated with happiness; and one of the tasks of the ‘positive psychology’ movement (the clinical side of subjective well-being research) is to try to enhance these senses.
But are these two theories really so different? After all, a person who believes that there’s a strong link between how hard they work and how successful they are, is a person who feels that they are in control of their economic destiny. In an effort-based meritocracy, success would be a matter of choice.
Andrew’s theory seems consistent with what we know about subjective well-being. But if he is arguing that leftists could be happier if only they believed in themselves a little more, he’s stepping well beyond what the research will support.
It seems likely that there is a relationship between self-efficacy and subjective well-being. A study on the self-efficacy and subjective well-being of low socio-economic status college students in China found that general self-efficacy "was positively correlated with General Affect, Life Satisfaction, and Index of Well-Being." But, as any statistician will tell you, correlation doesn’t imply causation.
Using other data they gathered from the subjects in their study, the researchers suggested that "low SES college students’ general self-efficacy and SWB decrease because they are unable to receive timely and necessary psychological support when confronting stress."
Self-efficacy is a subjective measure. It would be interesting to see the results of a study which managed to come up with an objective measure of efficacy — a measure of how much control an individual really did have over their prospects for success and failure. Perhaps it’s the reality of not having control over their lives that makes people unhappy. And maybe what left-wing voters really want are policies which would give individuals, families and communities more control.
Just chanting "I think I can" isn’t much help if the mountain really is too steep to climb.