Two studies—a survey spanning 19 countries and a longitudinal study in Chile—examined whether political conservatives typically have higher scores than liberals on well-being measures such as life satisfaction and happiness. After accounting for sociodemographic factors, conservatism was not linked to well-being in either study. The findings were recently published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Conservatives and liberals are two major political ideologies that differ in their views on government, society, and individual rights. Conservatives generally favor limited government intervention in the economy, traditional values, and a strong national defense. They emphasize individual responsibility and tend to oppose radical social changes. Liberals, on the other hand, tend to support government intervention to address social and economic inequalities, advocate for extensive social policies, and emphasize individual freedoms and civil rights.
Multiple psychological studies have reported that conservatives, on average, have greater levels of subjective psychological well-being than liberals. The differences were small in size, but those studies consistently found conservatives to be more satisfied with their lives, happier, and in better self-reported health compared to liberals. One of the explanations for this finding was that conservatives tend to be more satisfied with the social system and this alleviates the negative psychological consequences of perceiving societal inequalities.
Study author Salvador Vargas Salfate and his colleagues wanted to test these findings by examining whether conservatism predicts subjective well-being across time. They conducted two longitudinal studies. The availability of data from different time points allowed them to test whether it is conservatism that leads to better well-being or is it the better well-being that makes persons more conservative.
In the first study, participants were sourced from an international online panel managed by a public polling agency. They took surveys in September 2015 and then again six months later. A total of 8,740 individuals from 19 countries participated in both surveys. The majority hailed from Estonia, Germany, New Zealand, Poland, and the U.K., but a substantial number also came from other countries.
Participants were evaluated on conservatism (3 items), life satisfaction (5 items from the Personal Well-being Index), anxiety (using the Generalized Anxiety Disorder scale), depression (via the Patient Health Questionnaire-4), and overall health status. They also submitted various demographic details.
For the second study, the team evaluated data from the Chilean Social Longitudinal Study—a series of surveys started in 2016 focusing on a broad sample of Chilean adults. Of the 2,554 participants, the average age was 46, with females comprising 60% of the group. The survey included a 1-item assessment of conservatism, health status, and life satisfaction, plus a more detailed depression assessment (the Patient Health Questionnaire-9).
The initial study’s results revealed that conservatism could predict future life satisfaction, and vice versa. Yet, when demographic aspects were factored in, the relationship between conservatism and life satisfaction evaporated. Moreover, there was no discernible connection between conservatism, anxiety, and depression. Participants with a higher perceived social status generally reported higher life satisfaction.
Contrarily, in the Chilean study, a stronger conservative belief correlated with reduced life satisfaction in the future. However, prior life satisfaction did not forecast future conservative tendencies. This correlation was tenuous but persisted after adjusting for demographic elements. In this cohort, individuals with elevated social status were both more conservative and more content with their lives.
“In this research, we used longitudinal data to test the hypothesis that conservatism antecedes well-being. In two studies across 20 countries, and using different methods to treat the longitudinal data, we did not find evidence consistent with this hypothesis when considering 6-month and 1-year time lags,” the study authors concluded.
The current study makes a valuable contribution to the scientific understanding of the links between political ideology and well-being. However, it should be noted that the studies used very short or 1-item assessments for key factors. This limited researchers’ ability to test the validity of these assessments. Additionally, contents of conservative ideologies might differ between countries and cultures, something not accounted for in these studies.
The study, “A Longitudinal Test of the Conservative-Liberal Well-Being Gap”, was authored by Salvador Vargas Salfate, Sammyh S. Khan, James H. Liu, and Homero Gil de Zúñiga.