Arthur C. Brooks created a stir on the opinion pages in 2006 when he wrote a book citing scads of research showing that conservatives were substantially more generous than either moderates or liberals.

Now he’s done it again, but with a switch: His latest writing, again founded in sturdy social science, shows conservatives say they are also happier than liberals or moderates.

Six years ago, Brooks, who then was a professor of social science at Syracuse University, wrote, “Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatives.”

In it, he cited surveys showing conservative-headed families gave 30 percent more to charity than liberal-headed families, despite earning on average 6 percent less per family.

Even more telling, religious commitment was a far stronger indicator of charitable giving than politics, with religious families 25 percentage points more likely than secular people of any political viewpoint to give a portion of their incomes away, and in total donated four times as much as secular families.

And yes, they gave more to church, but they also gave more to secular charities, and were 21 points more likely to volunteer their time for nonreligious causes — and even twice as likely to donate blood.

One of the things that makes the most difference is how people view government’s role in creating income equity.

“According to the popular lexicon,” Brooks said at the time, people stereotyped as “bleeding hearts” are “those who most want to raise taxes and redistribute income from the rich to the poor. Yet the data show that these folks are actually less likely to give away their own money than are those whose hearts apparently don’t bleed quite so much.

“For example, people who disagree that ‘the government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality,’ privately give away, on average, four times more money than people who agree.”

Today, Brooks (who says that he has been enrolled both as a Democrat and a Republican, and now is an independent) has moved on from academia into the world of public policy. In 2008, he became president of the American Enterprise Institute, a pro-free-market think tank.

In a July 7 column in The New York Times, titled “Why Conservatives are Happier than Liberals,” Brooks recited the conventional wisdom: Liberals ought to be happier, because (as we are repeatedly told), “There is an entire academic literature in the social sciences dedicated to showing conservatives as naturally authoritarian, dogmatic, intolerant of ambiguity, fearful of threat and loss, low in self-esteem and uncomfortable with complex modes of thinking.”

Surely, none of those things is compatible with a sunny outlook on life. Yet, as Brooks points out, actual surveys of real people show that “it is conservatives who possess the happiness edge. Many data sets show this. For example, the Pew Research Center in 2006 reported that conservative Republicans were 68 percent more likely than liberal Democrats to say they were ‘very happy’ about their lives. This pattern has persisted for decades. The question isn’t whether this is true, but why.”

The surveys give two answers: marriage and faith.

“Most conservatives are married; most liberals are not. (The percentages are 53 percent to 33 percent … and almost none of the gap is a result of the fact that liberals tend to be younger than conservatives.)

“Marriage and happiness go together. If two people are demographically the same but one is married and the other is not, the married person will be 18 percentage points more likely to say he or she is very happy than the unmarried person.”

And then there’s faith. Not only are religious people more generous than secular people, they feel better about themselves, too: “Conservatives who practice a faith outnumber religious liberals in America nearly four to one. And … religious participants are nearly twice as likely to say they are very happy about their lives as are secularists (43 percent to 23 percent).”

Indeed, Brooks said, “Fifty-two percent of married, religious, politically conservative people (with kids) are very happy — versus only 14 percent of single, secular, liberal people without kids.”

Social scientists have known for decades that the surest way not to be poor is to finish high school, get married and stay married. Now some new dimensions have been added to that equation.

Brooks, however, had one more point he wanted to make. Despite the findings listed above, committed liberals are not the demographic group that reports the lowest personal satisfaction.

While 48 percent of “extreme conservatives” say they are happy, and 35 percent of “extreme liberals” do, the lowest rate is found among dead-center moderates, of whom only 26 percent say they are happy with their lives.

Maybe it really is true that the only things you encounter in the middle of the road are the headlights of oncoming cars.

 

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a free-lance writer. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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